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Rural women in drylands. Their success - Our future

The roles of rural women in drylands - as elsewhere in the world - range from mothers, educators, business owners, agricultural producers, paid or unpaid workers, farm owners and community leaders. Moreover, women in dryland areas, as in other ecosystems, are an important source of knowledge related to environmental management for medicines, food and water. Yet, they are often excluded from decision making processes and denied access to critical resources.

Rural women in drylands have limited control over productive resources such as land, credit, agricultural inputs, training and extension services. Their productive assets, including their labour and output, are generally considered to be less valuable than those of men. This not only limits women from realising their full potential both personally and in the workforce, it also impedes overall societal development. Equitable growth and progress cannot be fully realised if women are not given the opportunity to contribute not only with their hands and labour in the field, but also with their thoughts, ideas and creativity in their community.

According to UN Women, eliminating the gap between men and women in access to agricultural resources would raise yields on women’s farms by 20-30 per cent and increase agricultural production in developing countries by 2.5-4 per cent, which could in turn reduce the number of undernourished people by 12-17 percent or 100-150 million people, as well as increase resilience against climate change and preserve land and natural resources.

Our Gender Strategy works to make an impact in drylands by empowering rural women and providing them with better access to productive assets, information, financial services, training, and market opportunities. Our researchers seek to examine and understand the unique social and cultural contexts that affect gender roles, values, norms and expectations, are guided by our Gender Research Guidelines to ensure gender considerations are an integral part of the entire research process.

Many women’s associations, including self-help groups, have been established at the village level, mostly for the sake of enhancing the welfare of the families of these women and their communities. However, women’s groups are also partner organizations in the implementation of nationally and internationally initiated programs to combat the advancement of desertification, reclaim lost croplands and replant trees and shrubs.

Within many of our research-in-development projects and activities, women and women’s groups are re-establishing soil and land productivity by blending indigenous knowledge and innovative technologies.

For instance, following a series of seminars delivered by our scientists to rural communities in Uzbekistan, 45 women were inspired to set up a Rural Women Learning Alliance in order to join forces and identify and promote strategies for diversifying household incomes through cultivation of non-conventional crops. This demonstrates that when research is inclusive and a supportive environment is provided, women grasp the opportunities to develop themselves and the communities they live in, and often, they thrive.

Our researchers introduced the idea of tree-based foodbanks in Mali to combat malnutrition, especially during the dry seasons when fresh fruits and vegetables become scarce and meeting the essential micronutrient requirement becomes a challenge. Ten women associations, including 500 women in all, were encouraged to take up the idea and now provide a stable supply of superfoods for their families and communities all year round.

We established village-based seed enterprises in Afghanistan and facilitated the participation of women in management responsibilities. Not only did women get involved in the seed distribution system; they also gained the confidence to start up their own businesses and expand their income-generating activities as respected and influential members in their community.

But for change to truly set in, policy and partnerships must be reshaped and reinforced. We conducted a systems-perspective study in Morocco and Egypt on the gender gap in agricultural labor, and commercial and subsistence production which provided insights that informed a Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) tool to assess decent work for women in rural areas and promote evidence-based policy dialogue. Moreover, our collaboration with United States Agency for International Development (USAID) on the Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) agricultural information by mobile program started up-scaling in five West African countries, promising to enable more than 75,000 women to participate in tree value chains between 2015 and 2019.

Women are the backbone of the development of rural and national economies in dryland countries. Closing the gender gap in dryland agriculture and securing women’s rights, empowerment, and well-being in rural drylands is particularly important in the face of climate change, land and resource degradation, severe population displacement, migration, and widespread instability and crises in many dryland regions. When women in rural drylands are given the resources and empowered to succeed, the whole society stands to benefit.