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“Seeing a woman robbed of the fruits of her labor galvanized me into action”

Ibtissam Alaoui's picture
Also available in: Français | العربية
Photo: Nabil El Asri | World Bank
The agricultural sector is one of the strategic drivers of Morocco’s economy, generating 40 percent of the country’s jobs and currently employing four million people. Approximately 85 percent of the rural population, 57 percent of whom are women, works in agriculture. Women nevertheless still have very little access to decent incomes, land, and markets.
 
The rural poverty rate in Morocco is almost three times the urban rate. Some 70 percent of Morocco’s poor live in rural areas. Small farmers make up the majority of the sector (close to one million), but cultivate a mere 26 percent of the land. As a result of cultural and social constraints, women are especially affected by this phenomenon.
 
However, rural women have found a passionate champion in Itto Zeidguy. Ms. Zeidguy was in Rabat to attend a World Bank event on the agricultural sector and the role of women held on March 8, 2017. We wanted to know more about what motivates her. She spoke to us about her many years as an activist.
 
Q- Please introduce yourself.
 
My name is Itto Zeidguy, I am a native of the Errachidia region and I am a rural woman through and through. Throughout my life and career, I have had the opportunity to work with women and I very quickly realized that they were the mainspring of Moroccan society.
 
Itto Zeidguy
 
Q. What motivated you to become an advocate for rural women?

 
In the course of my job at Crédit agricole, my initial interactions with rural women made quite an impression on me.
 
As a young executive at the Crédit agricole  bank, I used to see scores of men come in to get loans to support their business activities, but I never saw any women. Whenever I traveled to rural areas however, I would see fields teeming with women engaged in often taxing activities. In Morocco and elsewhere, it is women who are most heavily involved in agricultural work, but who unfortunately are not sufficiently compensated for their efforts.

Q. You have worked for a long time in the area of microcredits, which you believe represent an “opportunity” for these rural women. Could you elaborate on this thinking?
 
This unjust situation that I just described to you inspired me to take action and help ensure that the work of these women is fully recognized. Around the mid-1980s, Crédit agricole introduced financing to promote income-generating activities. I got involved in this project because I wanted to draw attention to women’s activities and that is how the rural women’s unit, which I headed, was established in this bank. Later, Crédit Agricole’s Microcredit Foundation, now known as Ardi and of which I was a founding member, opened up new prospects for activities carried out by rural women and for women in the handicrafts sector.
 
Q. In your opinion, what is a good formula for empowering vulnerable women?
 
In my experience, I have found that these women had a lot of skills, but that they had to be mentored, guided, and given resources that have been adapted so that they themselves and their environment can benefit from their business, thereby ensuring greater cohesion in the society.
 
I belong to several associations, including the Moroccan Network for a Social and Inclusive Economy and ESPOD, one of the first women’s associations helping young women start up their own business. I am an honorary member of ESPOD.
 
Through my work in these associations, I have helped identify women leaders in their respective regions, who have been trained to serve as intermediaries to share their know-how and skills with women in the surrounding areas. This has gained traction and that’s how we moved from 10 or so women being targeted to hundreds.
 
In Salé, for example, we met women who each engaged in small-scale activities, but who were isolated and found it difficult to gain access to markets, and that’s the weak link in the chain. Training them, sharing success stories with them, and teaching them to market their products and manage their budget, allowed them to become economically independent. In Casablanca, we trained a group of about 10 women in food professions, and provided a child care service for their young children during this training. Facilitating partnerships with hotels and restaurants and helping them develop a delivery system enabled them to form cooperatives among themselves to help them meet their needs. We are therefore hoping to replicate this type of experience to help them support themselves.

Q- How can cultural norms that prevent these women from gaining access to incomes and to markets be overcome?
 
Your question reminds me of an incident that left an impression on me while I was working at the bank. When we set up the rural women unit, we were assisting a group of women in the Zemmour region with the production of traditional tribal rugs from the region. One day I went to the weekly market where these women were trying to sell their wares. One of them was negotiating the price with a buyer, and as the buyer was handing over the money for the rug, the seller’s husband appeared out of nowhere and pocketed the money. When I asked the young woman why she hadn’t collected the money, she replied: “my husband collects the money; he gives me a small portion of it if he wants to.”
 
Seeing a woman robbed of the fruits of her labor galvanized me into action. Along with other activists, we started discussing this issue and realized that the notion of autonomy and rights first had to be instilled in these women. Culturally speaking, they have been conditioned to yield to men. They are living in a culture of submission, of self-effacement. They are responsible for doing the chores – whether it has to do with water, wood, weeding, etc., but they do not reap the fruits of their labor. They are taken for granted. These women must be made aware that they have the right to benefit from the fruits of their labor and this requires a necessary and crucial awareness-raising effort.
 
Q – So, where do the men fit in in all this?
 
Actually, men are key to this process. I should point out that this awareness-raising effort that I mentioned must be undertaken with men who must be involved in the process from the get-go. We have to sensitize them about sharing tasks and convince them of the importance of greater empowerment of women and the resulting positive impact on the entire household and the community in general.
 

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