Various groups and minorities in Egypt are discriminated against and marginalized. With all the mobilization and debate happening in this post-revolution phase, one group has got very little attention and spotlight. Which group in Egypt suffers from highest rates of illiteracy; bears the heavy burden of utmost poverty; lack essential healthcare greatly jeopardizing their lives; and is not represented in our new parliament at all?
The answer is rural women. This is certainly not a simple minority group as rural females make up about a quarter of Egypt’s 82-million population. However, rural women are not a homogeneous group; they live in different regions and have different socioeconomic conditions. In this light, the most disadvantaged group would be poor, rural women living in Upper Egypt.
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Not only rural women do not get enough attention, but rural Egypt as a whole. Despite all the debates brought up during the revolution, little we knew of its impact on rural Egypt. Media outlets keep an urban eye to whatever going on despite evidence of a lot of mobilization happening on the rural front. We do know, however, that rural communities had a sense of solidarity with Tahrir Square, but they couldn’t fully participate because of the need to look after their lands or simply because they could not afford transport. However, there were growing concerns because of the rising costs that seriously undermines the agricultural process and the deteriorating security situation within the villages. In general, there was a sense of a need to put rural issues on the agenda and that reform has to reach the countryside.
The past regimes always asserted that farmers are on top of the development agenda, while the reality was that they worked on undermining the situation and rights of farmers. While Nasser’s regime sided with the villagers and worked to end feudalism and monopoly (despite other flaws), the neoliberal policies introduced in Sadat’s era placed higher value on exporting goods and joining the global market at the expense of local self-sufficiency; and this persisted through Mubarak’s time.
If we go back to look at rural women and their conditions, we’ll soon find out how they fall at the bottom of all welfare indicators. Only 66% of adults are literate in Egypt; Women living in rural areas are most likely to miss school or get the least years of education either for economic or cultural reasons, whereas the sons’ education is prioritized. Missing education is a major barrier for rural women as it shapes their potential; and illiteracy limits their life options such as economic opportunities and health status.
When we look at working conditions, we find that rural women play a crucial role in agriculture and rural development; however they get the least benefit from that process. Women perform many agriculture-related activities and mostly don’t get paid for it. This does not exempt them from the household chores they have to take care of besides their production. Although 41% of people working in agriculture and fisheries in Egypt are women, their right to own land is violated, mostly due to traditions enforced by family and community, and this is a worldwide problem not only in our region. With the increasing male migration to urban areas, more women are in charge of households and face extra burdens to maintain their livelihood.
Sadly too, rural women’s health is much at risk. They usually suffer from malnutrition despite her contribution to the production of food, but they usually favor giving most of the food share to her family. Additionally, they work long exhausting hours in the home and outside and they do not get sufficient health care. The highest fertility rates exist among rural women while they risk losing their lives during pregnancy and delivery because of the lack of access to adequate health services. It’s needless to say that they suffer most from patriarchal values. One of the mortifying realities is that the prevalence of female genital mutilation is highest in rural Upper Egypt and reaches 95% of women despite the ban and the efforts to eradicate this practice.
Rural women are also excluded from the decision making process. They don’t have representation on the local (agricultural associations, etc.) or national level (government, parliament, etc.). We don’t hear those women’s stories and they’re not empowered to advocate for their causes. We need to direct more attention to those women and their lives. New Women Foundation and Rising Voices has ran this project to convey the voices of rural women, listen to their stories!
With the dire conditions facing rural women (not only in Egypt but in various world regions), we need to reevaluate our priorities. The United Nations has chosen rural women as this year’s theme for International Women’s Day to help highlight the cause. Mervat El Tallawy, the newly-elected president of the recently-revived National Women’s Council presented a statement on the topic at the 56th session of the UN Commission on the status of women, and pledged to push their issue to the top of the agenda. Would those promises be realized? How much more can we afford to ignore rural women and rural issues in general while half of our population lives in rural areas?
The writer Maria Golia has made the case for the rural side of Egypt in her recent article.
“In the absence of intelligent top-down strategies, change must come from the bottom up. Egypt’s revolution began in cities, but the nation’s life literally relies on its grassroots. Think of this next time you slice a tomato: Unless Egypt’s head remembers its body, its stomach will go empty and it will lose its heart.”