Egypt: Rural Women - Hidden Changes At the Heart of Agricultural Egypt

Smallholder farmers from Swaziland’'s eastern Lubombo District are using conservation techniques to grow crops other than maize.
28 January 2013

Cairo — While Egypt's uprising may not have given rural women a louder voice in the political arena, gradual change may be occurring at the grassroots.

In the ongoing political turmoil in Egypt, the question of what change the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak will bring about and to whom is still to be resolved.

For women, however, post-revolution Egypt seems to have been marked by marginalisation in the political arena. This is particularly true for rural women who are typically one of the groups furthest from power. But while rural women may not have yet been given much opportunity to voice their concerns at the highest levels of political power, slower and longer-term change may be in progress at the grassroots.

Rising education levels

Although the rural districts of Egypt are often characterised as being traditional and patriarchal, Egypt's rural women are moving forwards.

"The majority of men and women want what is best for their families", Lindsey Jones, global gender adviser for ACDI/VOCA, an organisation which has worked with Egyptian women since 1982, tells Think Africa Press. "Once they recognise that greater social, political and economic participation of women will lead to better results for their families and societies, they are generally supportive of that participation".

She goes on to explain that there are now "greater opportunities for younger generations of women, largely because they have greater access to education than their mothers' generation". These generational differences are often fairly dramatic. One male farmer in Qena, for example, noted that "when it comes to farming, my wife and I are on different islands. My daughter on the other hand - I can ask her for advice."

Greater education also sets paves the way for greater economic opportunities for women, and this is often recognised and encouraged by parents of girls. "Men and women consistently spoke about how they wanted their girls to be educated and use their education to find a respectable job", Jones explains.

Fortunately, the labour market for women appears to be growing such as through the development of post harvest centres in Upper Egypt, though research by ADCI/VOCA already suggests that "women in Egypt make up more than 40% of the agricultural labour force".

Participation in decision-making

Rural women are also beginning to participate more actively in local organisations and politics. UN Women is creating women's committees within farmer associations, which has helped to raise women's voices within their communities. These committees have democratic structures and have benefited from the post-revolution excitement around democracy.

Participation also reaches the parliamentary level, with some female candidates from rural areas campaigning for election. Nazra, a group working with women parliamentary candidates, supported some of these parliamentary campaigns. The initial parliamentary elections resulted in only one successful candidate, but Yahia Zaied, project coordinator at the Women Political Participant Academy of Nazra was not discouraged.

Through training and campaigning, he explains, women candidates became better known in their districts and gained the skills required to work in the political arena, even if they did not win a seat this time round. "This parliamentary election was not the end - it was the start", he says.

Nevertheless the journey to get rural women better represented politically will be long and come up against several challenges. Negotiating traditional and cultural structures remains an obstacle as does training women in activities outside of their traditional responsibilities.

Hoda Kamal El-Mankabady, gender officer at UN Women, also suggests that tendencies towards coalition and cooperation, while commendable, can often be counterproductive in that in they lead some agencies to overlook the need to actively ensure rural women's unique participation.

Yet UN Women also shows that small interventions can go a long way. Their activities in creating spaces for women's participation, coupled with training in a variety of subjects have had a knock-on effects.

El-Mankabady cites one example in which a women's group was given responsibility for carrying out a survey of their region. In doing so they discovered that many people were sick due to sewage in the water. Building on this knowledge they collectively negotiated an agreement with a NGO in order to resolve the problem. "They are doing these things alone", points out El-Mankabady.

Ownership of land

Another crucial dimension of rural women's opportunities is the ownership of land which often remains tied up in tradition. As El-Mankabady notes, "a woman is not like a man in Upper Egypt; the distinction is strong. We are not advocating for equality, because they are not equal. We are advocating for equal opportunities."

Regarding land, El-Mankabady highlights that "women are not proud to say they have land. They are proud to say their husband or brother owns land". Indeed, they point out that often when women inherit land, their brothers take the land and give her palm trees or another substitute. "Men convince the women that the land is not useful to them", explains El-Mankabady.

But changing this status quo can be somewhat of a chicken and egg conundrum. "Women don't have expertise because they are not trained, and they are not trained because training programmes focus on land owners", says El Mankabady.

When the opportunity to inherit or gain land does arise, women are overlooked because they lack that very expertise. This vicious circle is also cultural since, as El-Mankabady points out, "people have been thinking so long in a certain way, it becomes a risk to create new practices. Women are seen as a risk."

Rural women in Egypt's future

While the revolution appears to have had immediate effect in generating enthusiasm for democracy, it does not seem to have triggered the same kind of immediate broader change in rural areas.

However, equality and freedom for rural women is being negotiated through careful development strategies in the long-term. According to Jones, "the two key factors that I've seen contribute to creating change in the rural areas are education and income-generating opportunities for women."

Indeed, revolution is not the only way to create change. Improved education, training programmes and initiatives to encourage participation may not be dramatic, but they are proof that whatever the political attempts to exclude women, rural women are gaining more opportunities slowly and surely.

The results of that change are that rural women are steadily accruing knowledge, greater incomes and a voice. And with food security a global issue, the people at the heart of food production and distribution could become increasingly important players in Egypt's development.

Catriona Knapman is a researcher and writer focusing on human rights and socioeconomic issues. Her professional experience spans a number of international organisations and continents.

She is currently based in Cairo. She also blogs at Writing on Rights. Follow her on twitter @CatrionaKnapman.

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