Gender Equality and Rural Women’s Empowerment Network
Near East and North Africa Region

Gender, Food Security and Nutrition


1. Over the past 20 years, food and nutrition security indicators of the Near East region such as the percentage of poor people, Daily Energy Supply, and the percentage of the undernourished have continued to compare favorably with the rest of the world. Although women and men of the Region have contributed to this, the contribution of women has been persistently overlooked.

2. Women contribute to food and nutrition security not only through the substantial amount of labor they provide on the farm to produce food but also through their involvement in productive economic activities that bring in income to the family from agricultural and non-agricultural jobs and through the many different tasks expected of rural and urban women at the household level, that go unaccounted for, in a society where roles are still very much divided along the gender lines. In the Near East, women are almost exclusively responsible for household tasks, health and child care, feeding the family, and access to clean water and sanitation; all of which are key contributors to food and nutrition security.

3. Yet, women in rural and urban areas of the Near East face many challenges and inequalities that prevent them from reaching their full potential as food producers and as income earners that seriously undermine efforts to achieve equitable and sustainable food and nutrition security in the region.
Challenges Facing Women in the Near East

4. Agriculture, being one of the biggest employers of women and men in the region, has been witnessing rapid changes in the last few years characterize by the “feminization” of the labor force in many countries due to the migration of men in pursuit of better job opportunities. According to the latest available statistics, the female share of the agricultural labor force in the Middle East and North Africa has greatly increased, from 34 percent during the period 1990-1995 to almost 45 percent in 2011, while men’s contribution has considerably decreased from 66 to 55 percent during the same period.

5. Although highly active in the agricultural sector, rural women in the Region work under less favorable conditions than men:
  • They work heavily as unpaid family labor in crop and livestock production, as well as in post-harvest activities. Studies show that in Morocco, women account for 53.2 percent of unpaid agricultural labor; in Egypt, 50.7 percent; in Lebanon 40.7 percent; in Sudan, 34.7 percent; in Iraq, 30.7 percent, and in Mauritania, 28 percent.
  • Whether employed as wage laborers or work for the family, rural women are responsible for the more labor-intensive, time-consuming tasks associated with crop and livestock production. Such work includes using hands or simple tools, in addition to carrying produce on their backs.
  • Women are also responsible for many post-harvest activities that require time and perseverance. d. Their work also includes fetching water in difficult conditions especially in mountainous areas like in Algeria, Yemen, and Morocco. A study in Somalia showed that, in the dry season, depending on the village location, women spent up to eight hours daily collecting water for household use. With climate change and environmental degradation installing in the region, women will be spending more time and travelling longer distances to find potable water.
  • Rural women in the Region work in more precarious conditions than men. Temporary casual workers are mostly women performing the majority of operations and tasks, and permanent workers are men employed for irrigation, mechanized work, as farm guards or managers. Women get more seasonal contracts; work for more hours than men (given the activities that accumulate such as housework and taking care of kids which are not considered as economic activities, but remain essential for households’ livelihoods and wellbeing), and get lower wages than men.
  • Rural women therefore constitute a vulnerable group whose employment lacks the conditions of decent work.

6. There is also a clear division of labor along gender lines in the Near East dictated by social norms. Men are more likely to be involved in cash crop production and mechanized crops and operations which are less constraining, less time consuming and better paid, while women tend to be more involved in food crop production, which is more labor-intensive and requires little or no mechanization. Women also perform home-based work for milk, wool and other postharvest processing activities for their own consumption and for the market. As family labor, men and women share many activities, but women are entirely responsible for home gardens, and for household’s livestock rearing.

7. Rural women in the region are heavily engaged in livestock production. With the exception of herding and marketing, they are active in all other tasks related to feeding and rearing of animals. Keeping livestock is very important for the household food and nutrition security as a source of animal protein (meat, milk, cheese or other dairy products, all of which women are responsible for processing and cooking) and as a source of disposable income when the need arises (through the sale of animals or their by-products). Women in the Near East are actively engaged in selling the milk and dairy products they produce and the cash income obtained from such activities is normally quite high. Women also obtain cash income from their activities in small-scale home-based poultry enterprises. In this domain, women have the sole responsibility for the work involved, the selling of chickens and eggs and the decision on how to spend the income.

8. Women in the Near East grow secondary food crops like herbs and spices on small plots and marginal lands near the farm, or intercropped with cash crops and gather food from wild plants which they use at home or sell. This activity not only contributes to the preservation of biodiversity but also to the diversification of the household diet as these crops contribute to the household's protein, energy, micronutrient and mineral requirements.

9. Rural and urban women in the Near East also contribute to household food security by the time-consuming activities they perform in food processing. Food processing not only contributes to food security by reducing food losses but also permits greater diet diversity throughout the year and provides important sources of energy and micronutrients to the family.

Access to Productive Resources

10. Access to Land: Women in the Near East rarely own land, and when they do, the land is often controlled or managed by male members of the family. In Jordan, women own 28.6 percent of the land, while in the United Arab Emirates and Oman; they own 4.9 and 0.4 percent, respectively. Surveys in Egypt, Morocco and Lebanon show that women own 24, 14.3 and 1 percent of landholdings. In addition, female landholdings tend to be much smaller than male landholdings. In Morocco and Oman, on average, men's landholdings are two and three times the size of women's, respectively.

11. Access to credit: 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 contribution to food security, such as access to credit and other means of empowerment (e.g. new technology and more land).

12. Access to technology: Rural women in the Near East Region perform their work in agriculture with very little access to labor-saving equipment and technology mainly due to their lack of cash income or credit to purchase technology, high percentage of illiteracy, and their lack of contact with extension services and cooperatives. This in turn limits their capacity to improve agricultural yields and increase the economic returns.

Human Development and Gender

13. The human development indicators of the region show that positive transformations in the education and health have taken place in the Near East. However, there are still inequalities in human development among countries, within each country and for specific demographic groups, most importantly for youth and women which have direct impact on food and nutrition security.

14. Access to Education: Women in all countries of the Region except Yemen have made gains in access to education, literacy, university enrollment, and the variety of subjects open to them to study. In terms of the gender gap in school enrollment and average years of schooling, the Near East countries compare favorably with the rest of the world. The enrollment rates at primary and secondary levels for women and men are similar while women have an edge at the tertiary level. However, among women agricultural workers, illiteracy rates are still very high in many countries of the region.

15. Education is one of the most critical areas of empowerment for women. It enhances women’s contributions to household food and nutrition security by enabling women to have better employment in urban areas, and better access to and use of information, technology, and extension services in rural areas and hence to engage in agricultural work more efficiently. It also increases the possibilities of women to make use of credit facilities for starting small businesses. An educated woman is also more likely to provide better health care and nutrition to her family, and to encourage her children to pursue education; all of which have positive impacts on household food and nutrition security.

16. Access to Employment: Despite the rise in education of women in the Near East relative to their male counterparts and women in other countries, their participation in the labor force, at 26 percent, is the lowest in the world. In comparison, men’s participation rate in the labor market in the region is 74 percent, and that of women in middle income countries is 61. Significant variation are however noted between countries with the lowest rates (7% of the labor force) being found in Saudi Arabia and other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Such low participation rates of women in the labor force underscore the failure of governments to put in place job-creating policies capable of absorbing the rising numbers of educated women and men especially the youth in the region. A review of the nature of job opportunities in most of the countries in the region in the last decade shows that most of the jobs were in the informal sector and did not require high qualifications and hence were not suitable for the majority of the educated women.

17. Like education, employment is an important component of gender equality and women’s empowerment. Evidence from other regions indicates that greater employment opportunities for women can lead to greater bargaining power within the family, which can positively affect the distribution of household resources in the direction of health and education of children and improve the food and nutrition security at the household level.

18. Access to Health Care: Countries in the region show great disparities in access to health care especially for women. In some countries like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates or Jordan, the ratio of physicians per population is over 200:100 000; this number is drastically lower, for example, in Yemen (22:100 000), Sudan (16:100 000), Djibouti (13:100 000) and Somalia (4:100 000). Disparities also exist within countries among wealth quintiles as access to, and utilization of health care services is determined not only by availability of services, but also by the affordability of services.

19. Because of socio-cultural norms, women in the Region tend to ignore symptoms of illness and delay medical treatment. Women´s health is often neglected or subordinated to the family´s health and this may result in the worsening of medical conditions. On the other hand, restrictions placed on female mobility in some countries and a lack of female health care workers also result in negative health outcomes for women. Thus, freedom of movement, financial power and social status are all important determinants in accessing health care.

20. Making health services accessible to the least disadvantaged population especially in rural areas, tackling the absence of qualified staff and operational equipment, dealing with the low social and economic status of girls and women and investing in preventive health through early diagnosis, sensitization and care will inevitably improve health conditions and enhance human development and consequently food and nutrition security in the region.

21. In terms of maternal mortality, the region is progressing slower than it should be, mostly due to differentials among countries and sub-regions. For example the group of Gulf countries has made significant progress, while the least developed group has not made any noticeable progress to achieve the Millennium Development Goal calling for the reduction of maternal mortality rate by three quarters between 1990 and 2015.

22. Even though the median age at marriage for both men and women is rising in the Near East and more women are staying single longer or not marrying at all, early marriage is still common in some countries like Mauritania, Palestine, Sudan and Yemen where nearly half of the girls younger than 18 are married. Teenage pregnancies and childbirth at a young age have injurious effects on the health of young mothers, cause problems throughout a woman’s childbearing years, and make a special contribution to the double burden of malnutrition. In addition, teenage pregnancies can have serious health implications for infants in terms of low birth weight and the associated health and development burdens in child- and adulthood.

Gender and Nutrition

23. The nutrition transition through which the Near East is passing where under-nutrition coexists with obesity and increasing rates of diet related chronic diseases are affecting the quality of life of many women and young girls.

24. The rapid changes in lifestyle and dietary habits and urbanization that took place at a fast pace have led to an increase in the prevalence of overweight and obesity in the region, particularly among women. The reported general prevalence rates of obesity in the Gulf countries in adults range from 13.05–37% in men, and 16–49.15% in women. However obesity is not only prevalent in affluent societies, it is also present in middle income and low-income countries and among the poor in all countries. Obesity among women increases the complications of pregnancy and delivery; it also increases maternal mortality and morbidity.

25. Hidden hunger and micronutrient deficiencies among women and young girls are also an issue of concern in the region. Available data show that Iron deficiency and its associated anemia problems are widespread among women, especially of child-bearing age. It is estimated that more than one third of the population is anemic in the region, with Oman and the Syrian Arab Republic registering 40 and 41 percent prevalence rates, respectively, among women of childbearing age. Anemia directly affects labour productivity and studies show that 1 standard deviation change in hemoglobin is associated with 3.6% reduction in work output. Another emerging nutritional issue among women in the region is Vitamin D deficiency. Recent research points to the fact that severe forms of hypovitaminosis D have been particularly reported among veiled women who lack exposure to sunlight. Vitamin D deficiency is a risk factor for osteoporosis, which puts women at increased risk of fractures.

26. Concomitantly with the increase in obesity and overweight, countries in the region show high prevalence of stunting among children under the age of five not only in the low income countries but also in countries with middle-to-high incomes (20% in Saudi Arabia, 18% in Morocco, 17% in United Arab Emirates, and 25% in Egypt). Among the 36 countries in the world with childhood stunting rates over 20%, four countries (Egypt, Iraq, Sudan, and Yemen) are in the Near East Region. Childhood stunting is most severe though in Yemen (53%). Stunted children become stunted adults who are 2 to 6 percent less productive than adults of normal stature. It is estimated that a 1 percent decrease in adult stature is associated with a 1.4 percent decrease in productivity. Thus, a lifetime of economic loss results from a failure to prevent stunting in early childhood and accompanying deficits in adult stature.

27. Despite the traditional social fabric in the region and the low participation of women in the labor force, the region is witnessing a decline in breastfeeding practices. The rate of “exclusive breastfeeding” at 28 percent in the region makes it lag behind sub-Saharan Africa, where the rates are 30-39 percent and puts it at 10 percentage points below the average for developing countries. The link between optimal infant and feeding practices for the growth, development and protection of children are well documented and are reinforced with the evidence linking infant feeding practices to chronic diseases development later on in life.

Decision Making

28. In the Region, women’s decision-making power may be limited and male family members often have the primary say in matters related to finances, freedom of movement, children´s education, health care-seeking behavior and the use of family planning methods; all of which affect the household food and nutrition security.

29. In rural areas, despite the fact that in many countries males are migrating away from agriculture, leaving the most difficult agricultural activities in women’s hands, women’s management of households and natural resources remain limited mainly due to the impacts of prevailing patriarchal system. Male members of the family decide on the agricultural practices to be pursued and control financial matters such as credit and loans, marketing and the allocation of income and savings and land selling and rental transactions. 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 home garden food production.

30. 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.

Policy Options

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, health care and education. Thus, resources for women represent resources for food and nutrition security. Therefore to enable women in the Near East to contribute more effectively to improving the food and nutrition security at the household and national levels, policy makers are called upon to:
  • Shift from a food security paradigm to a gender-sensitive food and nutrition security approach. The increase in the prevalence of hidden hunger among women and the prevalence of stunting among children in all countries of the region during periods of economic growth and abundance of energy supplies points to the necessity of including nutrition objectives in policies focusing in particular on women and children. Interventions must address nutrition in young life, especially during the critical 1000 day window of the life of a child, as well as adult life including care for women, respect for their rights and elimination of child marriage and teenage pregnancies;
  • Put in place policies that make labor markets more hospitable for women for increasing their participation in the labor force and raising their income unleashing thus the dormant potential women have to become active participants in the economic cycle. Focus in particular on building national capacity for analysis and elaboration of integrated policies, in order to create a climate more favorable to business, investment and the creation of jobs, especially for young women, and to improving the provision of services;
  • Plan public policies to boost access of women to productive assets. Reducing gender disparities by enhancing the human and physical resources commanded by women leads to growth in agricultural productivity, greater income and better food and nutrition security for all. Take in particular active measures to:
    • Enforce the implementation of laws and regulations related to control over resources and properties, particularly in rural areas, and to equality in wage allocation;
    • Scale up efforts to enhance access of women to credit and financial facilities;
    • Increase investment for training and capacity development and for developing “targeted technologies” which would contribute to reducing working hours for women farmers and provide them with means to increase their incomes.
  • Promote women representation and access to power and to decision-making processes. A revision of the legal and juridical system integrating a rights approach in relation to women is necessary in the Near East to enhance access to political and economic decision making processes.
The State of Food and Agriculture  2010-2011

The State of Food and Agriculture 2010-2011
Women in Agriculture
Closing the gender gap for development