Iraqi rural women rebuild livelihoods in area visited by Pope Francis

FAO and the European Union strengthen agricultural livelihoods after conflict in Northern Iraq

Dhuha and her family are rebuilding their dairy business after the conflict in the country. An FAO-EU project is supporting them to improve milk quality and rehabilitate their home dairy processing unit. ©FAO/Chedly Kayouli


On 5-8 March 2021, his Holiness Pope Francis made a historic visit to Iraq bringing messages of hope and peace to the country. During his trip, Pope Francis went to areas that have been devastated by conflict, where vulnerable rural communities have struggled to survive. The governorate of Nineveh, in Northern Iraq, is among those areas once held by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). 

“They gave us hours to leave," said Dhuhaa Najm Shith, one of the many women dairy producers forced to give up their homes, farms and dreams due to the conflict.

Nineveh is considered the “breadbasket” of Iraq, producing most of the country’s grain including 20-30 percent of its wheat. It is also a major centre of livestock production. The ISIL occupation of this territory between 2014 and 2017 displaced over one million people, mainly from rural areas and severely damaged the agriculture sector.

"They came back and threatened us with weapons if we didn't leave... after their insistence, we went out of the house. Me, my children and my husband's parents heading to (his brother's) house… and my husband stayed near the buffalo shed watching what happened. Then they broke the barn door to bring in a large cannon,” recalls Dhuhaa, tears nearly bursting from her eyes.

Farmers, especially women dairy producers, are still struggling to recover after returning home to find infrastructure destroyed, assets looted and livestock stolen, missing or slaughtered.

Dhuhaa and her family are just one of many rural households in this area that relied on milk production as their main source of income and must now rebuild all that they have lost due to the conflict.

Almost all rural dairy producers in Nineveh do not have access to refrigeration along the milk value chain, making extra work for the women to process it rapidly to reduce milk losses. ©FAO/Chedly Kayouli

Addressing this reality, FAO and the European Union (EU) are working with rural dairy producers to rehabilitate traditional home-processing units, revitalizing the country’s dairy production and restoring livelihoods. Equally, the project seeks to empower rural women in these affected areas, as dairy production was often their work and livelihood.

Despite their considerable contribution, women’s work is often undervalued or, worse, unseen in rural Iraq. Women play a key role in processing traditional dairy products, and there is a high local demand, but there is little recognition for the women’s work behind it.

“Everyone in Iraq loves Al-Qimar, the country’s signature soft cheese cream and other local traditional dairy products, like butter, ghee, laban and a variety of white cheeses. Yet, few realize that the dairy farmers who produce such products are mainly rural women,” says Chedly Kayouli, FAO Senior Livestock Value Chain Expert.

In most cases, women are left out and left behind due to prevailing customs and traditions. Not only is illiteracy very common among women, but they often also lack access to new training and technology. Rural women still face persistent structural barriers that exclude them from decision-making processes at all levels, impeding their economic security and personal agency. The project is changing this by working directly with the women to provide them with the supplies and training they need.

Women are the main producers of dairy products, which are popular all over Iraq. However, traditionally, women’s work has been undervalued or neglected. ©FAO/Chedly Kayouli

Dhuhaa smiles as she remembers how life was before, “I used to raise buffaloes: preparing feed for them early in the morning before sunrise. I milked those buffaloes, put the milk in prepared containers, and extracted Al-Qimar from that milk to sell in the city markets… My life between housework and raising buffaloes in the barn, it had a taste of sweetness.”

Now it is about rebuilding. The project started by providing Dhuhaa’s buffaloes green fodder, which is better for milk production. It also helped turn her modest kitchen into an in-house dairy production plant, providing her with the needed equipment to help convert milk into higher value products such as Al-Qimar and yoghurt. This new stainless steel dairy equipment will help her save time as well as ensure healthier, more hygienic production.

Dhuhaa is just one of 2 000 women who is benefitting from this EU-funded project to improve traditional processing of dairy products. The project is also rehabilitating 35 home units for milk collection, cooling, processing and marketing. Providing supplies side-by-side with technical assistance and capacity building is ensuring meaningful results for communities not only in terms of better quality dairy products but also for job creation in rural communities.

When asked about her experience working with FAO and Iraq’s Ministry of Agriculture, Dhuhaa states, “Hope came one morning knocking on our door. These people learned about our story. They learned about what happened to us in those old days, so they decided to help us and to revive our dream.”

Training in Qaraqosh

In the days, after the visit of Pope Francis to Qaraqosh, the FAO-EU project hosted a training on the development of fodder crops in this village. Wameth Yohanna and his wife Rwa Marzina Jozeph, a Christian family from this area, and 34 other farmers from neighbouring villages attended; all the farmers received new seeds to promote a more nutritious mix of fodder crops. Rwa is also among the 2 000 women producers who received new equipment and training to improve the quality of their dairy products.

FAO works in post-crises settings to restore self-sufficiency and dignity, rebuilding agricultural livelihoods and empowering rural women. Through this project improving dairy value chains and revitalizing Iraq’s livestock production, FAO and the EU are reviving hope to returnees in Iraq.

“Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war," said Pope Francis during his visit to Nineveh. His message of rebuilding was for all and echoes FAO’s actions to help the country move forward.

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5. Gender equality, 8. Decent work and economic growth, 10. Reduced inequalities