Research in Tunisia Explores Women Pastoralists’ Roles in Climate Change Adaptation

A recent study from the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and Western University in Ontario, Canada, finds that women in Tunisia are more involved in livestock grazing and rearing activities than policymakers and practitioners assumed. The research suggests that providing support for women to sustain pastoral systems could help repair Tunisia’s degraded ecosystems.

“Women are playing a role with responsibilities that contribute to the strength of the whole collective,” says Fiona Flintan, Senior Scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). With the the feminization of agrarian labor, the climate crisis places a big burden on rural women. As a result, women are fundamental to mitigation and adaptation strategies.

According to the Institut Tunisien des Études Stratégiques (ITES), desertification affects 96 percent of Tunisian territory. A confluence of different factors drive Tunisia’s rangeland degradation: overgrazing, barley and olive cultivation encroaching on pastoral lands, privatizing collective land, complex land tenure systems, and climate change. The decline in grazing areas reduces fodder and feed production, which farmers depend on for mitigating food shortage risks for humans.

The researchers conducted focus groups and interviews with 289 individuals in the northern governorate of Zaghouan and the southern governorates of Medenine and Tataouine. Their analysis aims to understand gender roles in rangeland management, gendered impacts of rangeland degradation, and men and women’s adaptation to changing environmental conditions. Based on the fieldwork, they report women are more involved in rangeland activities than previously understood. Protecting rangelands and pastoral livelihoods are contingent upon women’s inclusion in drought mitigation and livestock management projects.

According to Dina Najjar, a social and gender specialist at ICARDA and the study’s co-author, a combination of increased dryness, land privatization, and male outmigration have caused a shift in the dynamics of a household’s livelihood practices. Also, the costs and effects of climate change in Tunisia are gendered based on socially ascribed roles and responsibilities. Tunisian women increasingly have more responsibilities traditionally regarded as masculine: irrigation, livestock grazing, and buying and selling in markets.

Despite women’s changing roles in livestock activities, men own most of the land in both regions, according to the research. Although women own a significant amount of livestock, they tend to own more goats and sheep, which are considered less valuable than camels.

“The more valuable the [livestock] are, the less likely women are to own it or control it. I think we found one single woman who owned a camel,” says Najjar. “The livestock itself is gendered and the impact of climate change was mostly related to more work.”

The study also shows that women undertake more manual labor associated with responding to resource degradation and climate change, while men bear more financial costs. For example, women report walking greater distances to collect forage and fetch water, and bathing and cleaning up after livestock.

But Louise Sarant, Communications Specialist at ICARDA, explains that the intensification of physical labor does not translate into greater decision-making power. “Women find themselves with a lot more work because men have taken up jobs in cities, or in other areas, or abroad,” Sarant tells Food Tank. “But their inclusion and input on projects and their access to being beneficiaries has not increased.”

Due to these inequities, women in both regions have a more difficult time accessing loans and credit that might help them cope with climate stress and improve their livelihoods. Because agricultural training for drought mitigation and rangeland management have typically been considered important only for men, women are often unable to learn about new technologies that could support their livestock activities.

But Najjar and Sarant discuss how this training can provide new opportunities for women. It is considered inappropriate for women to wear wet clothing, making it difficult for women to use flood irrigation methods. But training women to use drip irrigation—which transports water in a slow, controlled system—can help them carry out these tasks in a culturally acceptable way.

Najjar urges policymakers to “challenge gender norms and involve women in rangeland management associations,” and emphasizes how water user associations and rangeland management committees need to reach “a critical mass of women in leadership positions.”

Creating more visibility, social acceptance, and training for women in perceived masculine roles is a critical step towards challenging gender norms. The study advises policymakers to provide women with drought management and adaptation training on par with men, especially given the accelerated resource degradation facing the region. To help improve pastoral livelihoods and productivity, the researchers propose optimizing women’s ability to share their expertise and insights on rangeland management and voice their concerns in policy dialogues.

“When women are empowered and they can make decisions, their children are fed better. So I think that involving women in water user associations and rangeland management groups and programs will definitely have positive impacts on food security,” Najjar affirms.

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Photo courtesy of Zied Idoudi, ICARDA

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