In the MENA region, agriculture is central to many national economies and has a profound impact on urban and rural inhabitants alike. Unfortunately, the region has under‐invested in agriculture in recent years, despite facing risks from climate change, drought, and population growth. Engaging more women in working on food, nutrition and water security issues in general and in agricultural research, in particular, is one way to boost much-needed innovation. Studies have shown that gender‐balanced teams improve innovation and productivity.
Unfortunately, there is a disproportionately low number of women working in senior scientific and managerial positions, especially in the MENA region. The average share of women scientists across the region stands at 17%, which is the lowest in the world.
The MENA region has a great wealth of talented women researchers and any solution to the region's critical food security challenges should ideally be evidence-based and innovative, making use of all talent by being gender-inclusive and by greatly improving cross-border collaboration.
Towards a Solution
Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture (AWLA) aims to mitigate structural causes of gender inequality and encouraging women to take an active role in scientific developments, with a vision to lead a transformation in agricultural research and development in the MENA region, powered by women. The 10-months capacity building program developed a cadre of 22 aspiring Arab women researchers and equipped them with the knowledge and skills to make a positive difference in agricultural sustainability in their countries and the Arab region as a whole. The curriculum included three major components which complemented each other. These components included face‐to‐face learning through classroom workshops, online courses, and research and experiential learning through capstone projects.
In the spirit of South-South and Triangular Cooperation, AWLA facilitated knowledge exchange and networking among women researchers throughout the Arab region by empowering groups of women champions and building their research and leadership skills in agriculture-related fields, to become change agents in their respective areas of expertise. Above all, it created platforms to showcase their intellect, capability and contribution in the MENA region.
AWLA was formulated as a result of the initial design phase of the Young Arab Women Scientists Leadership Program (Tamkeen), conducted in 2016‐17. The International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) produced comprehensive reports on the value proposition, operative models and related activities associated with capacity building programs, agricultural research, and gender‐based statistics. The research methodology included four main components:
- Review and analyse education, scientific research and development and agriculture academic programs in the MENA;
- Review and analyse regional and international capacity building programs targeted at women working on food, nutrition and water security issues;
- Conduct focus groups and interviews with Arab women working on food, nutrition and water security issues within the agriculture field to explore their challenges, development needs and perspectives on an ideal program design;
- Develop and test a leadership capacity‐building module for Arab women working on food, nutrition and water security issues, and analyze their feedback. The findings were presented in the reports and shared with core and potential donors. They were also presented at high‐level seminars including the Annual Governors Meeting of the IsDB Group in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2017.
The AWLA program included the following key milestones:
- Develop the program’s key elements (January‐February 2019);
- Launch AWLA’s website and announce a call for applications (8 March 2019);
- Select fellows (May ‐ June 2019);
- Deliver blended learning components via face‐to‐face workshops, online courses, and research and experiential learning through capstone projects (July 2019 – March 2020);
- Partner with donors and other organizations (February – December 2019);
- Provide advanced fellowship opportunities (November 2019 – March 2020);
- Organize a graduation ceremony for fellows (8 March 2020);
- Establish and support the AWLA Alumni Association (April 2020 – ongoing).
AWLA’s long‐term goal goes beyond the capacity development and includes improved food security and nutrition, a better research and development landscape, and economic and social benefits of a narrowed gender gap in the region. It contributes to SDG2, SDG5, SDG6, SDG13, SDG15, and SDG17.
AWLA’s implementation team is now working to secure support and funding for the second cycle of the program. Work is underway to complete the proposal for this purpose. The team will also continue to monitor the career progress of the alumni and support them in various ways.
Through training and development, the program will ultimately contribute to better and more women-centred solutions for improved food, water and nutrition security in the region. Women-led contributions to agriculture, both on the farm and in the lab, are essential components of global food security.