Bilquis A. Abdul-Sattar: “It is our duty to ensure Yemeni women get more rights.”[Archives:1997/41/Interview]
Ms. Bilquis Anwar A. Abdul-Sattar is the Director of the Rural Women Development Directorate at the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation. After graduating form Nasser’s College of Agricultural Sciences in Aden, Ms. Abdul-Sattar continued her higher studies in India, finishing with an M.Sc. in taxonomy. She has occupied her current post since August, 1995. This week, on October 15th, the world will mark the international Rural Women’s Day. It will then observe the international Food Day on October 16th. Both are directly relevant to the fortunes of rural women. Here in Yemen, the lot of rural women is as miserable as can be. Women in the countryside do most of the farm and household chores. They do not receive direct financial remuneration for this work. In addition, country women receive far less services such as education, health, etc. They bear most of the brunt of economic hardships, especially due to downsizing, removal of subsidies, etc., which are associated with the on-going economic reforms. On this occasion, Mr. M. Bin Sallam of Yemen Times talked to Ms. Abdul-Sattar and filed the following interview. Excerpts:
Q: Could you tell us a little about the directorate you are heading? A: There are many departments dealing with rural women’s issues in several governmental bodies. The Directorate of Rural Women’s Development is part of the Ministry of Agriculture. We do a lot of supervising, field visits, workshops, seminars and exhibition for our field staff. We are also this ministry’s policy makers in this sector. The thrust of our efforts is to enhance the fortunes of rural women and to improve their conditions.
Q: What kind of projects do you carry out for that purpose? A:Our projects largely fall under three main categories: agricultural, livestock, and home economics and natural materials. The idea is to help rural women improve their output, and hence their income. An example would be the unit for women in a project for potato production in the Tihama region.
Q: Does that mean you directly Assist female farmers? A: Yes. We give them seeds, pesticides, fertilizers, and general technical assistance and advice to help them prepare the land. If they have traditional ways of planting, then we try to employ these ways along with our more modern methods. Thus, we can compare production levels. We also conduct home visits to see what women are doing, what they need and how do they use their spare time.
Q: How developed are the policies of your directorate? A: Of course, we had started from basic levels. Our directorate started a project in July of 1996 to assist us in establishing a policy and strategy to upgrade the office and field staff. The project will assist the directorate to organize workshops for our staff and the staff from other relevant government departments as well as their decision makers.
Q: On what does your proposed strategy focus? A: Our strategy is to focus on helping rural women in the 3 major sectors (agriculture, livestock, and home economics) I explained earlier. In some areas, we have to focus on only one of these sectors if it is the only one adopted in that particular area. In certain areas there are natural local materials which can be used to produce handicrafts. So we may concentrate on a particular aspect.
Q: I understand you are still evolving your strategy. For how long will this strategy-developing project go on? A: The project is scheduled to last for 3 years. We invite the field staff to provide us with information and feedback based on their experiences and ideas on how the strategy and policy should be evolved.
Q: How important is the role of women in agriculture? A: Women in the agriculture sector are more important than men. We have conducted several studies and field surveys which attest to that fact. Women carry out the main tasks in agricultural activities, from sowing the seeds, to weeding, spraying pesticides, and harvesting. Marketing the crops, however, is the sole responsibility of men. This is unfortunate because it involves collecting the proceeds (revenue) from sale of the products. A woman would start in the morning before sunrise to cook food, feed the animals, and then goes to work on the farm. Young girls usually take the animals for grazing in the fields. So in addition to looking after the children and the other daily household chores, a rural woman also has to work as a farmer which is no easy matter. In many parts of the countryside, women are also responsible for fetching water, collecting fire-wood, and similar efforts. It is a hard life.
Q: What obstacles face women working in agriculture? A: Many rural areas in our country face a lot of problems such as the lack of drinking water, the inadequacy of health care facilities and social services, the absence of electricity and many other essential services. This makes the lives of rural people, in general, and those of women, in particular, very hard and tough. In addition to her household responsibility, a woman has to help in raising the family, and working on the farm. As I said earlier, she is also responsible for fetching water and collecting firewood daily from places that might be far away or high up a mountain. If she doesn’t do these chores, than she cannot cook or wash clothes which leaves the whole household in disorder. So the main problem is the multiplicity of a woman’s responsibilities within the home. The other problem is, of course, poverty which is the norm in rural areas. Many rural families are so poor they cannot buy basic needs which would have helped to lift some of the burden off the women’s shoulders. In several areas of the country, the husbands are away, either in the cities or abroad in search of work opporunities. Women are left alone to run the daily family affairs.
Q: Are women and farmers in general able to market their products successfully? A: It depends on the product. In general, we can say that there is a shortage of marketing facilities in our country. Marketing problems may have hindered some rural women from practicing their traditional handicrafts. In a new development, more and more women are now prohibited from working in the market place or other places where genders mix. It is now considered a source of shame for the family.
Q: What is the most pressing problem in the Yemeni countryside? A: Lack of water, for drinking and irrigation, is the most pressing problem. This affects a lot of things. Dams and cisterns are essential for providing irrigation and drinking water.
Q: In your meetings, what do rural women demand? A: They ask for the essential services to help them carry out their agricultural activities. If services are available in the countryside, a woman can do a lot. Rural women are at present so preoccupied with their daily problems that they cannot benefit, say, from the literacy classes provided for them.
Q: Do women drive tractors and operate other forms of agricultural machinery? A: Yes, some women do that in many rural areas. They use trucks in their work in potato production in Dhamar. There are also women who spray pesticides and do other technical jobs around the farm.
Q: Do agricultural programs presented by the Yemeni TV help women farmers in their work? A: I am afraid that many rural or even semi-rural areas don’t have electricity. So watching TV becomes impossible.
Q: What about the issue of land ownership? A: This issue actually varies between different parts of the country. In the southern governorates, farmers did not own the lands they used to work on in the days of the PDRY. Most of these lands are now returned to the original owners from whom they had been taken away. So, the farmers became either tenants or dispossessed. There is currently a World Bank project to give dispossessed farmers lands in Lahaj, Abyan, Shabwa, and Hadhramaut. Both male and female farmers would presumably have equal access to the land. In the northern governorates, women do own land, although they are often effectively dispossessed by male relatives.
Q: What does this World Bank project entail? A: The project which may start next year will give farmers small plots of arable land. Every 4 or 5 farmers will have to share water from a well. Organizing and consolidating social activities are also part of this project since dispossessed farmers will be given lands away from their original villages. The necessary studies and surveys in preparation for project launch have already been completed. Unfortunately, most of the plots will be registered in the name of the man of the family. This is our society’s tradition.
Q: Any last comments? A: Today, there are contradictory currents in the works. One trend entails more rights for women, the other brings more restrictions. It is our duty to ensure Yemeni women get more rights.