The agricultural sector largely depends on women, as their role is significant to the economies of numerous agricultural nations, particularly in the Arab world. In fact, women constitute 22% of the total agricultural workforce in this region (1). Despite this, they are often deprived of the necessary standards for decent work. While some Arab countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco have established legal frameworks encompassing the right to unionize and to access health and social insurance, a disparity remains between legal provisions and their practical implementation. For instance, robust social protection systems are not readily available to female agricultural workers, and the absence of an updated database classifying agricultural labor by gender further compounds the issue. Moreover, the transient nature of seasonal agricultural labor means that a stable wage is not consistently guaranteed.
In addition to reinforcing discriminatory practices that exacerbate the marginalization and rights infringement experienced by female agricultural workers, they also face economic violence through the denial of land ownership rights. Both national and international statistics, including the 2018 FAO report, highlight that women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region own less than 5% of agricultural land.
The agricultural work environment presents a myriad of threats, risks, and occupational hazards that disproportionately affect women. But workers are forced to continue their work under these conditions due to financial necessity, all while shouldering the burden of occupation related medical expenses. This situation has led Iraq to designate agricultural labor as hazardous and demanding work (2).
In addition to these precarious labor conditions, which fail to uplift women from the grips of poverty, women shoulder the weight of care work that subjects them to physical strains and consumes countless hours. Moreover, within the patriarchal capitalist system, women face a barrage of exploitative tactics, marginalization, and exclusion from decision-making roles.
All of these factors compound to make the journey for female agricultural laborers arduous and fraught with increased hazards, amplified by the impacts of climate change. Some Arab nations face serious perils such as escalating sea levels and intensified rainfall, leading to floods that inundate agricultural lands in countries like Egypt and Sudan. Other countries like Tunisia and Yemen grapple with parched water sources and advancing desertification, culminating in significant reductions of arable land. The consequences extend beyond mere employment loss as hundreds of families will be forced to migrate due to the impacts of climate change. These changes will add to the responsibilities of women, who will be responsible for procuring sustenance and water in an environment devoid of proper sanitation facilities. Consequently, the exposure of agricultural workers to dual and manifold forms of violence escalates, encompassing economic adversity from job loss, and physical and sexual harm amid forced displacement.
The paths towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and the principles of just transition are inherently intertwined. The realization of both hinges on a concerted effort that acknowledges the interconnectedness of economic, social, and environmental dimensions, encompassing diverse populations worldwide.
However, the path to an equitable transition remains fraught with challenges in MENA region that is beset by armed conflicts and warfare, depleting resources, stagnated development, and widespread displacement. Compounding these difficulties are economic crises across various Arab speaking countries stemming from global events and entanglements with international financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These institutions impose unjust lending terms and advocate for privatization, subsidy reductions, and austerity measures.
Countries in the region must recognize the gravity of continuing business as usual under these circumstances. A shift towards stability necessitates innovative policies that facilitate the transition towards socially and environmentally sustainable economies. Such an evolution holds the potential to become a robust catalyst for job creation, social equity, poverty eradication, and sustainable management of natural resources. This encompasses the formulation of sustainable agricultural policies, mandating the active involvement of all stakeholders in the production process.
Efforts to integrate gender considerations and enhance access to eco-friendly services must be pursued, particularly for those living in rural areas who rely heavily on support. Achieving this objective demands social dialogue that involves the diverse participants, underscored by equitable representation of women in these discussions.
Crucially, such dialogue should encompass the nuances of a just transition, inclusive of sustainable agricultural policies and equitable engagement of female agricultural laborers. These conversations must occur within a balanced and unbiased setting, accommodating all the participants in the production process. A prerequisite for this achievement is the systematic elimination of barriers obstructing the equitable representation of agricultural workers.
Work to integrate female agricultural workers into a just transition necessitates actions from governments and trade union organizations, including the following:
In addition to these measures, it is imperative to consider the following recommendations:
Social Protection: Governments must establish social protection systems in alignment with international labor standards to effectively address the ramifications and challenges brought about by climate change. Policies need to be devised to combat all forms of gender-based violence, encompassing preventive measures and support mechanisms. Adequate allocation in the state budget for these endeavors is essential. Legislative amendments should be introduced to grant agricultural workers paid maternity leave, with social insurance bodies responsible for ensuring wage coverage during this period. The Ministry of Social Affairs should also provide accessible childcare facilities for the children of agricultural workers, with reduced fees.
Skills development: In light of the diminished opportunities for agricultural workers due to climate change, there's an urgent need to generate new job prospects. This entails crafting programs for rehabilitation, transition, and professional advancement tailored to these workers. This approach aims to equip them with alternative employment avenues, encompassing engagement in agricultural production and nurturing their capacity to manage micro, small, and medium enterprises. Particular emphasis should be placed on sectors intertwined with agriculture, fostering the formalization of these enterprises through cooperative methodologies. This approach seeks to bolster the financial resilience and collective endeavors of female agricultural workers.
Occupational safety and health: Rising temperatures are correlating with increasing disease rates among agricultural workers. Hence, the implementation of health risk assessment systems becomes imperative, coupled with the establishment of requisite prevention and protection mechanisms.
No state can withstand the impacts of climate change in isolation. Collective action is imperative, with civil society and labor unions across Arab countries needing to exert pressure on both governments and the international community. This pressure should be geared towards ensuring the fulfillment of obligations concerning the adoption and execution of international policies that robustly address the challenges of climate change. It is essential that these policies encompass all marginalized groups, particularly agricultural workers.
Mona Ezzat is an expert consultant specializing in economic and social empowerment as well as gender issues across several international organizations. She has written many articles and research papers that were published both at the national and regional levels.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.