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close this bookRural women and food security: current situation and perspectives. (1998)
close this folderNear East
close this folder3 Constraints faced by women farmers
View the document(introduction...)
View the document3.1 Exclusion from power and decision-making
View the document3.2 Poor institutional support
View the document3.3 Lack of land rights
View the document3.4 Lack of credit
View the document3.5 Inappropriate technology
View the document3.6 Insufficient education
View the document3.7 Neglect by agricultural extension services
View the document3.8 Exclusion from research


Experience has shown that resources in the hands of women often have a greater nutritional benefit to households than the same resources controlled by men. Women are more likely than men to spend a given income on food for the family. Thus, resources for women represent resources for food security. Reducing gender disparities by enhancing the human and physical resources commanded by women leads to growth in household agricultural productivity, greater income and better food and nutrition security for all (Gittinger, 1990; Quisumbing et al., 1995).

However, data collected in the region show that rural women are poorly supported in political, economic and social development efforts and that large gender gaps exist with respect to women's access to power and the resources necessary to achieve food security (political representation, education, technology, credit, research, extension services, etc.). The following sections present the data available in the region regarding the above constraints in more detail. Unless specified otherwise, the sections draw heavily from the FAO publication Women, agriculture and rural development: a synthesis report of the Near East region, 1995. This document analyses and consolidates the most recent and available data on women in agriculture in the Near East. Data were compiled by coordinators from 17 countries in the region using various methods such as participatory rural appraisals, rapid rural appraisals, national consultations, field visits and review of available national data and microstudies. The purpose of this document was to provide the background information needed to prepare FAO's Regional Plan for Action in the Near East (1996 to 2000), or RPAWANE 2000.

3.1 Exclusion from power and decision-making

While countries in the region fare relatively well when compared with the rest of the world in terms of food security indicators such as the number of poor people, calorie intake and the percentage of undernourished children, they compare a lot less favourably when rural women's issues are examined. This is especially true with respect to their representation in national and local power structures, at decision-making and policy-making levels, and at the farm household level. Without adequate representation and access to power, women cannot be involved in the decision-making processes that affect their lives. Thus, rural women are unlikely to have any significant impact on the formulation of policies aimed at increasing food production and ensuring food security at the household level.

Women in the region lag far behind their counterparts in the rest of the world in their economic and social participation and decision-making (UN, 1991), in spite of substantial improvements in institutional representation and support since the early 1980s. While most countries in the region have granted women equal rights with regard to important legal issues, education, private ownership, employment, social security and welfare services, large gender gaps continue to exist in these domains.

When regions of the world are compared, the percentage of women in parliamentary assemblies is lowest in North Africa and Western Asia (UN, 1991:32). In fact, in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, the Sudan, Cyprus, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, women make up less than 4 percent of parliamentary representation.

In ministries of agriculture, men still comprise the overwhelming majority of those employed. Very few women hold high-ranking policy-making positions. In Egypt, in 1992, less than 5 percent of the 62 administrative positions at the Ministry of Agriculture were held by women. In Syria and the Sudan, only one out of the 49, and one out of the 61 managerial positions at their ministries of agriculture were held by women, respectively. In Yemen, in 1990, only 3.7 percent of the policy-making positions were held by women and, in Jordan, the figure was only 1.5 percent (FAO, 1995c:24). Turkey, with 6 percent, has the highest representation of women in decision-making positions in the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs.

Women in the region are also unlikely to participate in agricultural cooperatives or other rural organizations, either as office-bearers or members. In the countries where data are available, women constitute less than 10 percent of members in various cooperatives and rural organizations (in Iraq, 9.4 percent; Jordan 9.3 percent; Iran 9 percent; and Turkey 1 percent). As office-holders in cooperatives and rural organizations, women constitute 29.4 percent and 5 percent of employees in Jordan and Iraq, respectively, while 18, 3 and 2.6 percent of decision-making positions in these organizations are occupied by women in the Sudan, Cyprus and Mauritania.

Women's participation in these organizations can promote household food security by assisting them in selling their produce and: "are often channels through which agricultural extension services, agricultural inputs and credit are directed... (and) serve as a platform for making the voice of farming women heard more effectively in matters that concern them" (FAO, 1990a:8).

There is insufficient research in the region regarding who makes decisions at the household level. Since men have predominant control over productive inputs and cash income, it would be safe to assume that men generally control decision-making, especially since the majority of households in the region are male-headed and patriarchal. Thus, men are likely to decide on the agricultural practices to be pursued during the season, and when to buy or sell crops and livestock, livestock feed, fertilizers and seeds. They are also more likely to control financial matters such as credit and loans, marketing and the allocation of income and savings and land selling and rental transactions.

Some evidence suggests that certain types of decisions are made jointly between men and women, and that women predominate in issues relating to family matters such as marriage, education, divorce, child care, nutrition and household food purchases.

Women are more likely to have a greater say in domains in which they provide a significant portion of the work required, such as in livestock, poultry and kitchen garden food production. Moreover, some studies have shown that a woman's negotiating power and her status within the household improve if she is married with children (especially sons) and if she is elderly (Taylor, 1987). Additional power is wielded if she brings in cash income and contributes to household expenditures. Thus, any efforts to increase women's access to resources and skills in income-generating activities have the spillover effect of improving women's authority and decision-making power at the household level.

3.2 Poor institutional support

Despite a growing recognition of women's critical role in food production and food security, institutional support to rural women in the Near East has been weak. Government, non-governmental and international efforts remain limited in nature and scope. While variation exists among the countries with respect to the support given to rural women from these various institutions, for the most part, efforts have been small-scale, one-time initiatives that target only a very small number of women beneficiaries. Very few projects have been innovative, and fewer still extend support to women farmers by providing them with credit, land, technology or training for food production and household food security purposes.

At the government level, several Women in Development (WID) Units and other national machineries have been set up to empower women. More often than not, these bodies have vague or limited mandates, with little impact at the national policy level, and suffer considerably from poor funding and limited access to appropriate human and technical resources. These machineries tend to operate outside mainstream development efforts and, so far, have had very little impact on improving the conditions of rural women.

A few countries, such as Egypt, the Sudan, Tunisia and Turkey, have well-established WID structures with clear-cut objectives. Some units in the region (in Egypt, Yemen, the Sudan, Iran and Turkey) have been established at a high level within their ministries of agriculture and have been given the tasks of: promoting gender awareness among men and women through gender planning and training; mainstreaming gender considerations in agricultural policies and practices; conducting research and collecting information on women in agriculture (data, documents, etc.); facilitating women's access to productive resources and services; and coordinating the activities of national and international bodies. For the most part, however, these structures have not yet been successful in incorporating gender issues into food and agricultural development policies and strategies.

Rural women are, in general, poorly supported by NGOs. Although a large number of NGOs operate in the region, few have concentrated their work in rural areas. The number of rural projects and their beneficiaries is quite small. When projects are directed at rural women, they are often one-time, small-scale, income-generating efforts and revolve around educational, health and vocational training. While these are important elements in assisting women to achieve food security at the household level, further efforts are needed to address women's needs in large-scale food production activities, such as crop and livestock production, directly. Specifically, efforts should be directed at developing and providing women with new time-saving and labour-saving technologies to produce and process food more efficiently.

International support for rural women in the region is also poor. The few projects that have been instituted are small-scale, localized and isolated, with little potential for any significant large-scale impact on improving women's contribution to food security. To date, the majority of projects have targeted education, health and family planning needs and have provided training and inputs for small-scale traditional women's enterprises such as weaving and animal husbandry. While these are commendable efforts, more innovative approaches are needed to target larger numbers of rural women and assist them in their efforts to increase food production and establish household food security. Examples of such efforts include interventions that seek to develop and provide agricultural technologies, credit and extension to women farmers, redistribute land to women or increase the demand for women's paid labour in rural areas.

Despite the fact that few high-impact policies and projects have been instituted in the region to support rural women in food security, some significant first-time initiatives have been undertaken, which set the stage for future work in the field . However, these remain isolated, localized and dispersed efforts that target only a small number of rural women.

3.3 Lack of land rights

In the Near East region, as is the case in most of the developing world, legal, social, and institutional barriers are responsible for the great inequalities in women's access to productive resources such as land, credit, education, research and technology. These inequalities prevent women from reaching their full potential as food producers and as income earners and seriously undermine efforts to achieve equitable and sustainable food security in the region. The following sections examine the extent to which rural women in the region suffer from these constraints.

Since official landownership records do not exist in many countries of the region, very few data are available on how landownership varies by gender. Caution should be exercised in analysing available landownership records since farmers tend to under-report for fear of taxation and government control.

Whatever few data exist indicate considerable variation among the countries. What emerges consistently is that women rarely own arable land, although civil and religious law permit ownership and the buying and selling of land by women. Furthermore, although some women hold land titles, more often than not, they give up their rights to them to male members of the family (sons, husbands, fathers) who control them, in exchange for favours or a portion of the land's remittances.

In Jordan, women own 28.6 percent of the land, while in the United Arab Emirates and Oman, 4.9 and 0.4 percent of land is owned by women, respectively. Surveys in selected regions in Egypt, Morocco and Lebanon show that women own 24 ,14.3 and 1 percent of landholdings. Cyprus stands out as an exception, where 51.4 percent of the land is owned by women. A comparison of women and men landowners in Egypt, Morocco and Oman shows that female landholdings are smaller than male landholdings. In Morocco and Oman, on average, men's landholdings were two and three times the size of women's, respectively.

Many land reform efforts and irrigation and resettlement projects have ignored women as potential beneficiaries (Quisumbing et al., 1995:3). In Egypt, for example, only 7.4 percent of the newly reclaimed land was distributed to women agricultural graduates and, in Morocco, only 4 percent of the land that was redistributed after independence was allocated to women.

Without the ability to exercise their right to landownership, women lack collateral and are thus denied the benefit of policies and institutions designed to alleviate gender inequality and increase their contributions to food security, such as access to credit from rural banks and other means of empowerment (e.g. new technology and more land).

3.4 Lack of credit

Rural women in the region have very little opportunity to access credit, which is important for them in order to expand agricultural production or earn more income to purchase food. Special credit facilities for women in the region are limited, and some of the major impediments to women's access to credit are poor infrastructure, female illiteracy, the lack of education and information, tradition and custom, and the absence of collateral, especially in the form of landownership.

In Cyprus, which stands out as an exception, approximately one-quarter of all agricultural loans in the past ten years were disbursed to women. In Iran, only 15 percent of all loans disbursed by the Agricultural Bank in 1993 were extended to women. In Jordan and Turkey, women received only 6 and 2.8 percent of the total loans disbursed by the Agricultural Credit Corporation and the Agricultural Bank, respectively. In Egypt, efforts to establish special funds for women farmers by the Principal Bank for Development and Agricultural Credit resulted in women receiving 12 percent of all short-term production loans and 16 percent of investment loans in 1993.

3.5 Inappropriate technology

Women in the Near East Region perform their work in food security with very little access to labour-saving equipment (e.g. tools, threshers, harvesters, transportation vehicles) and technology (e.g. improved seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, technical expertise). Equipment and technology increase the efficiency of farm and household work, improve agricultural yields and increase food production. In the dwelling itself, many women perform household tasks without electricity, running water, sewage and garbage disposal and adequate cooking and food storage facilities.

Women's access to technology is limited by several factors including their lack of cash income or credit to purchase technology, and their lack of contact with extension services and cooperatives. Tradition encourages men to take control over mechanized land preparation, sowing, fertilizing, herbicide and pesticide use, harvesting and post-harvesting activities, leaving women with the more labour-intensive and time-consuming non-mechanized tasks such as hand-sowing, hand-weeding and harvesting, and picking fruits and vegetables. Moreover, new technology has often been inappropriate to women's needs. For example, while mechanization of some farm practices, such as sowing and harvesting, has reduced drudgery and increased productivity, mechanization has also reduced poorer women's prospects for employment and cash income (Buvinic and Mehra, 1990).

Appropriate technologies, specifically to enhance women's contributions to food security in the region, have yet to be developed. Efforts are needed to develop appropriate, gender-sensitive and environmentally sustainable technologies. The introduction of such technology must be preceded by careful examination of their socio-economic and gender implications, especially with respect to any differential impact the technology may have on men and women and on rich and poor farmers.

3.6 Insufficient education

Education is one of the most critical areas of empowerment for women and enhances their contributions to household food security. The relationship between food security and education stems from the fact that educated men and women farmers are more likely to have access to and use information and technology to produce more food, and are more likely to take advantage of extension services and credit facilities. An educated woman is also more likely to provide better health care and nutrition to her family members, and to encourage her children to pursue education. Indeed, there is a strong positive relationship between reducing the gender gap in education and economic growth on the national level (Sadeghi, 1995).

Rural women in the Near East lag far behind men and their urban counterparts in education and training, in spite of major wide-scale campaigns to address this issue. According the United Nations (1991), the North Africa and West Asia region has the second lowest percentage of literate women in the world. In this region, over 70 percent of women aged 25 and over are illiterate. The rural female illiteracy rate in the region is over 90 percent, the highest figure, when compared with other regions of the world. Although the female literacy rate more than doubled between 1970 and 1990, two-thirds of the region's estimated 65 million illiterate adults are women.

Girls receive much less schooling than boys, although the gap is quickly shrinking as a result of compulsory education laws in many countries of the region, and because of large efforts in the building of free government schools in rural areas. In 1960, the enrolment rate for girls was 28 percent. This figure had soared by 1990 to 70 percent (UNICEF, 1996:49). In the rural areas, the gap between boys and girls in primary and secondary school enrolment is larger than it is in urban regions. This is mainly attributed to economic necessity and strong conservative traditions, as well as to the limited number of schools at the village level and the reluctance of parents to send their girls to distant educational facilities. Girls are withdrawn from school at an early stage for marriage and because they can assist their mothers in household and farm work.

At secondary schools, vocational schools and universities, the gap between male and female enrolment is higher, although the number of women seeking higher education in agriculture is increasing in all countries of the region. The number of female students enrolled in higher agricultural education was highest in Jordan (45.1 percent) followed by Morocco (37 percent), Turkey (36.8 percent), Lebanon (35 percent) and Egypt (31.4 percent). In Cyprus, Iran, Iraq, Oman, Tunisia and Yemen, less than 30 percent of students enrolled in higher agricultural education were women (FAO, 1995c). As a result, very few women in the region work in agricultural institutions.

3.7 Neglect by agricultural extension services

Agricultural extension provides farmers with information and training in new technologies to grow agricultural produce more efficiently. In the Near East region, extension services rely mainly on conventional methods, such as farm visits and village meetings, to provide technical information to the farmer. Data from the region show that the vast majority of extension officers are male and most, if not all, of their target farmers are men, in spite of women's active involvement in food production. This is largely a result of tradition, which limits contact between the sexes and discourages women from attending meetings outside the house. Women's heavy workload also prevents them from taking time off to attend meetings and courses away from home.

According to Saito and Spurting (1992), in the Near East, women constitute 19.5 percent of all extension staff and only 9.5 percent of all field extension staff, indicating that, while some women may be trained as extension officers, very few of them venture out of their offices to contact farmers. Data at the country level indicate even fewer female extension officers. In Yemen, the Sudan, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Cyprus and Iran, the percentages of female extension workers are estimated at 19.6, 12, 11.7, 4.8, 4.2, 2.6 and 1.9, respectively (FAO, 1995c). When extension is provided to rural women, it is usually on topics such as food and nutrition, health, child care and home management. While these are important elements for food security, what is severely lacking is training in equally important domains such as growing high-yielding crop varieties and more productive farming practices. Since women farmers in this region have difficulty in gaining access to information and are hard to reach by conventional extension methods, carefully produced radio programmes may be used as a way to provide them with technical information on improving their farming operations, especially as this medium is widely available in many rural households.

3.8 Exclusion from research

Women also suffer from "a lack of recognition of expertise they have acquired" as food producers (Quisumbing et al., 1995:7). As a result of this, not only is international and national agricultural research designed and conducted almost exclusively by male scientists, research also takes place on isolated research stations or on large farmers' plots with only male farmers attending, almost always without any regard to women's knowledge of indigenous crop varieties and planting systems, water and land conservation, conservation of biological diversity and the sustainable use of biological resources. On-station and on-farm yield trials and adoption and impact studies take place without any consultation with women farmers, who may have a deeper (and different) understanding of the growing environment than their male counterparts.