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A context-specific approach to empowerment

Oct 15,2017

Women in Egypt continue to experience marginalization and widespread constraints.

An ICARDA study explored the diversity of women’s experiences in Egypt’s agricultural sector. On International Day for Rural Women we call for a context-specific approach to empowerment that accurately reflects women’s immediate needs and priorities.   

Rural women play a key role in food security, income generation and agricultural production – yet their contributions remain largely invisible and many continue to face insurmountable challenges, including limited bargaining power, weak or no control over assets, and restricted access to inputs, information and training opportunities. Understanding this reality is a necessary first step in the development of new policies and strategies that can fundamentally transform women’s lives. 

There are various types of women farmers and they face different constraints and opportunities. Few studies capture this diversity. A recent study by ICARDA, FAO, and the University of Western Ontario, however, attempted to address this by exploring the constraints that different groups of women faced in two rural settlements in Egypt: a traditional agricultural area and a recently-settled arid area where agriculture is sustained through irrigation. 

In an attempt to understand the diversity of women’s experiences, needs and priorities, researchers explored and measured the empowerment of wage workers, entrepreneurs and employers, self-employed workers (including subsistence and small-scale producers), and family men and women workers.    

The constraints facing rural women

The study revealed the marginalization of many rural women and the barriers that many continue to face. Some key findings stand out. Despite employment opportunities, women had limited opportunities to acquire training or credit, and in the case of agricultural workers, to earn wages that were high enough to accumulate savings on assets. 

Many also had to contend with erratic incomes, insecure employment, work-related injuries and no health insurance, and when they were able to accumulate assets such as homes, legal ownership was often in the name of their husbands – meaning they could lose control over these assets following separation or divorce. 

Finally, women’s contributions to agricultural production tended not to be recognized both by themselves and others at the community and official levels, which prevented them from mobilizing and challenging the constraints they faced. 

Transforming the livelihoods of women    

These constraints affected women differently - meaning that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to empowerment would be ineffective. The findings suggest that that an alternative strategy is required – one that understands the diversity of women’s experiences and provides practical context-specific recommendations for empowerment at the economic, social and political levels. 

What does this mean for some of the groups of women studied? For rural wage workers forced to endure low, delayed and irregular payments, policies need to enforce a system of fair pay. Social protection is also needed to protect against seasonal and other vagaries such as illness, injury and maternity; child care would reduce women’s time poverty; and promoting worker associations could help these women bargain for better wages and work conditions. 

Contributing family workers would benefit from joint titles to marital property – enhancing their access to, and control over, landed assets. Enhancing women’s ability to secure independent titles to land and housing could be a long-term goal, and raising widower pensions would assist older women and widows, particularly those who receive limited support from their families. 

Many women worked in small enterprises operating outside the formal economy and therefore labor laws and regulatory mechanisms - a situation that requires their integration in local markets and marketing channels under fair and non-discriminatory conditions. 

Small producers and subsistence farmers need equal access to vocational training, credit and markets to expand production and raise their incomes. They also require better support from farmer unions - whose priorities should shift from securing lower prices for fertilizer and water to supporting women to mobilize, organize and bargain collectively for health care and social protection benefits. 

Although entrepreneurs and employers in the newly-settled areas enjoyed positions of comparable power and status with men, had access to opportunities for economic and social advancement, and were able to assert their own agency, these women were difficult to find in more traditional agricultural areas – suggesting that women in these communities need enhanced support to initiate and sustain their own enterprises, especially in the long term for generations to come. 

Tailoring empowerment strategies to women’s specific needs and priorities offers a practical route to empowerment that can be replicated across the dry areas. Development organizations need to shift from ineffective yet all too common ‘one-size-fits-all’ models to context-driven solutions that more accurately reflect women’s realities.   

Author: Dina Najjar, ICARDA Gender Specialist.

A report on these findings will be released towards the end of this year.