Cultivating vision and networks to untap rural women’s and girls’ potential in the Mediterranean

Last March in New York the sixty-second Commission on the Status of Women (CSW62) took place with a priority focus on ‘Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls’. The Commission recognized in its conclusions «the crucial contributions of rural women to local and national economies (…) and to achieving food security and improved nutrition (…) and to well-being of their families and communities (…)». It also expressed concern at the fact that «many rural women continue to be discriminated against, marginalized and economically and socially disadvantaged owing to, inter alia, their limited or lack of access to economic resources and opportunities, decent work, social protection, quality education, public health, including health-care services, justice, sustainable and time- and labour saving infrastructure and technology, land, water and sanitation and other resources, as well as to financial services, credit, extension services and agricultural inputs» (CSW62 2018).

The multiple intersecting challenges faced by many rural women and girls around the world are critically exacerbated in the Mediterranean region, particularly in the South, by further pressures linked to extreme weather and climate change, conflicts and protracted crisis, negative trends in the labour market and persistent traditional cultural and social norms (FAO 2017) with adverse implications for the communities of affected territories.

Although women’s indigenous knowledge and skills in food production and natural resources management are being increasingly acknowledged, traditional discriminatory norms, gendered roles in productive and care activities, heavy workloads and underrepresentation in decision-making processes prevent women from contributing fully to climate mitigation and adaptation planning and implementation efforts.

In times of conflict and crisis, in distressed rural areas, when most men leave, die or get injured, women and girls stay, taking on men’s roles as family breadwinners and playing an important part as agents of area stabilization. Yet, external support often struggles to take into account women’s differentiated needs, time and mobility constraints and the pressures of a patriarchal society. As a result, few are then the chances of transforming temporary and contingent shifts in gendered roles into ‘windows of opportunities’ for positive and permanent changes in gender relations.

In Mediterranean lagging-behind rural and coastal areas still limited options exist for decent employment, especially for rural young women who, according to the so-called ‘MENA paradox’ (Assaad 2017), «are both increasingly educated and increasingly unwilling to engage in traditional agriculture work (…) (t)hus, because of limited mobility and limited modern employment opportunities in their local labor markets, they are increasingly unemployed or withdrawing from the labor force altogether». In other cases, young – and older – rural women get ‘trapped’ in precarious self- or waged employment in micro-enterprises which, rather than empowering them, in fact contribute to further fragilizization of their livelihoods (Gharbi Paloni and Ruggerini 2016).

In general, old rural women appear to have less hope for change and rather tend to accept the current situation, young rural women, instead, have ideas, projects and big hopes for change. They can be agents of rural change for their openness to technology and innovation, they are full of energy, dreams and enthusiasm, and can contribute to the revitalization of their communities (Gharbi Paloni and Ruggerini 2016). Undoubtedly, rural women are not a homogeneous category. Generational as well as socio-demographic characteristics and personal attitudes influence their reaction to the various infrastructural, social and market constraints they face and contribute to shape their life pathways.

Altogether, though, rural women and girls have a significant potential that, fairly acknowledged and effectively unlocked in public and private spaces, can valuably contribute to a balanced and inclusive development of Mediterranean rural and coastal territories (CIHEAM 2017).

Over the past decade Southern Mediterranean countries have undergone significant legal and institutional reforms to promote and guarantee gender equality, in line with international commitments to ensuring women’s human rights and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Various measures – showing, though, different degrees of commitment across countries – have been undertaken also by the Ministries of Agriculture (MoA) to mainstream gender issues within their structure and policies and such multiple efforts deployed for women’s empowerment have been made in close cooperation and partnership with local and international actors.

However, significant discrepancies between laws and official strategic documents, on one hand, and traditions and practices in real-life rural contexts, on the other hand, still exist. Efforts and support for institutional gender mainstreaming and capacity building are therefore still strongly required to foster an effective use of available tools for gender-responsive policy planning, implementation and evaluation and translate policy action into tangible progress in gender equality.

Much of rural women’s and girls’ potential still remains untapped – also because their contribution to the agricultural sector and to rural development dynamics remains invisible, both in the countries’ statistics and in the perceptions of many decision-makers.

For gender-sensitive policies and programmes able to successfully unlock such a potential, rich, nuanced and accurate knowledge of specific gender roles and dynamics as well as of complementarities between men and women in local contexts is to be generated, combining robust sex-disaggregated statistics and sound participatory qualitative research.

Doss et al. (2018) warn about the ‘preconceived notions of gender relations’ that policymakers, practitioners and researchers often carry and the stylized narratives depicting women as ‘victims or saviours’. Going beyond such discourses will contribute to better understand women’s and girls’ differentiated and multifaceted needs, values and prospects. It will also help conveniently exploring latent margins for ‘negotiation and jointness’ with men within the household, the community and in business relations, avoiding a simplified, exclusive focus on rural women and girls as independent actors of change (Doss et al. 2018; Stoian et al. 2018).

In those Mediterranean areas, where livelihoods still essentially rely on agriculture and fisheries, drivers for women’s empowerment, too, appear to be inextricably (albeit not exclusively) linked to ‘negotiated’ improvements in women’s participation to such economic activities. ‘Negotiated’ with men, as well as with other women, with institutions, organisations and business actors. Pathways to such improvements cannot but start from a comprehensive, multidimensional analysis of gender-based constraints in local agricultural and fisheries value chains, engaging public and private actors in early stages. Following actions should then reach rural women and provide them with promising, safe and fairly remunerated individual and group work opportunities along the chain. Gender-smart technological, green and organizational innovations can be introduced, value can be added to old women’s traditional know-how and young educated women can be attracted by new appealing prospects for acquisition of marketable skills, professional development and business leadership. A better access to ICT and services, along with the improvement of women and girls’ digital literacy, can provide online learning and training opportunities, paving the way to new entrepreneurial paths.

Economic advances cannot occur in isolation, disconnected from the protection and respect of women’s and girls’ rights and dignity as well as from continued support to help them exercise their agency and increase their voice. This is particularly true in the most conservative areas where specific, multidimensional interventions – targeting women and men – are needed to avoid backlashes against women. Well-equipped and self-confident rural women could, eventually, feel and be able to further negotiate in private, social, economic and political life, consolidating previous achievements, taking on new challenges.

CIHEAM is strongly committed to ‘Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment’ (GEWE) which is one of the fifteen key priorities of CIHEAM Strategic Agenda and Action Plan for the Mediterranean, CAPMED 2025. Within the Organisation, the Institute of Bari has pioneered interest and work on GEWE issues since 2000, with a number of gender-targeted initiatives across the region and continued networking efforts. Currently, in collaboration with different donors and agencies, CIHEAM Bari is fostering women’s participation to local dairy value chains in post-conflict areas of Syria, developing gender and nutrition-sensitive agriculture in Ethiopia, supporting gender mainstreaming for sustainable rural development and food security across the Mediterranean through the GeMaiSa programme.

Building on institutional, on-field and methodological achievements of a previous pilot phase as well as on the outcomes of an internal evaluation, GeMaiSa (2018-2020), funded by the Italian Cooperation, is now operating in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia. A multidimensional understanding of rural women’s empowerment is at the core of GeMaiSa. The program directly targets women’s individual and collective needs within specific value chains in selected rural areas, through the implementation of small-scale initiatives (with a preference for collective action), deeply anchored in local rural contexts and co-designed with partner institutions – the Gender Units of MoAs. The setting up of local Participatory Action Research groups is also supported. Context-based initiatives are one of the two key closely interacting components of GeMaiSa dual-track operational approach which pays equal attention to build capacities on gender mainstreaming within national and local institutions.

Being a regional programme, exchange, networking and coordinated action for more gender-sensitive agricultural and rural development policies in the Mediterranean represent an overarching element of GeMaiSa vision and rationale. National and local representatives of partner countries regularly share their experience in closed sessions and, in multi-stakeholder workshops, organised with the participation of international organisations and NGOs, for cross-contamination of views and approaches.

The last workshop was held last July at CIHEAM Bari showcasing the richness of recent and ongoing experience on women’s empowerment within rural value chains and the wide array of approaches and tools developed over time. Among other issues, concern for the quality of development action was expressed and recommendations were formulated for a deeper understanding of rural contexts’ challenges in partner countries, a stronger commitment and ability to listen to rural women’s voice and needs, advanced capacity to translate donors’ values and priorities in sustainable action on the field and within partner institutions and systematic integration of sound M&E practices in cooperation interventions.

The importance of taking in due account the specificities of women’s and girls’ empowerment in rural contexts and value chains has been also emphasised in recent discussions of the G7 Food Security Working Group (FSWG) to which CIHEAM Bari participates. And the theme will stay in the spotlight also in the coming weeks. A Union for the Mediterranean – CIHEAM workshop on ‘Empowering Women in Rural and Agricultural Areas’ will take place in the framework of the conference ‘Women4Mediterranean Conference 2018 – Women build inclusive societies’ to be held in Lisbon, Portugal, on 10-11 October 2018. GeMaiSa programme experience will be part of the debate.

Patrizia Pugliese, Rosanna Quagliariello

Ciheam Bari, Italy