Women, Irrigation and Social Norms in Egypt: “The more things change, the more they stay the same?”

By Dina Najjar
Submitted to Session P4978 (Water Politics, 2017 Annual Meeting
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Women are actively engaged in the irrigation sector in Egypt but their contributions tend to be poorly understood and undervalued both by land owners (typically men in their own families and communities) and also by irrigation engineers and extension agents. Women’s labour contributions to irrigation tend to be marginalized due to misperceptions of lack of physical strength or technological ability, sociocultural norms that deem it to be inappropriate work for women, and because women are always perceived as ‘helpers’ rather than as workers or cultivators. A survey was administered to 100 men and 100 women in the Old Lands of Egypt, which were originally cultivated by the inundation of the Nile River. An equal number of unrelated men and women were surveyed in the New Lands, which became cultivable after the construction of the High Aswan Dam. The survey was conducted to understand the labor contributions made by women and men on 1) their own family farms, 2) as hired laborers and 3) on local water governing bodies. The survey also collected other sex-disaggregated data to understand irrigation problems faced by farmers, the types of information farmers needed from irrigation specialists, perceptions of women’s contributions to irrigation, and the usefulness and impact of irrigation innovations. Survey data was complemented with interview data from 10 semi-structured interviews in the Old Lands with water engineers and other officials responsible for irrigation. The interview questions were aimed at understanding the interactions of these officials with male and female cultivators in the region. We discovered that women contributed their labor to irrigation in 78 percent of the total of 400 households surveyed. We also found that the diffusion of certain irrigation technologies such as drip and sprinkler systems in both the Old and New Lands has made irrigation a more socially acceptable task for women although women had also been irrigating land long before these new technologies and innovations became available. Findings from this study indicate that women are far more actively engaged in irrigation efforts in Egypt, and possibly in the wider MENA region, than is generally thought to be the case. Their contributions should be acknowledged and made more visible in research and policy circles. This paper is a modest contribution towards doing so.
Keywords: technologies, gender, irrigation, social norms, Egypt