“Namlieh” is originally the name of the traditional wooden cupboard that was used during the pre-industrial era. However, in this case, it is also the name of an initiative launched by the NGO CRTD.A (Collective for Research & Training on Development-Action): Namlieh is a space for exhibitions and sales of traditional, creative and healthy products made by the rural women cooperatives in Lebanon. Namlieh also facilitates access to internal and external clients, organizes or participates in marketing events and engages in Fair Trade initiatives. This initiative is dedicated to the empowerment of rural women. We asked Omar Traboulsi, Field Program Manager at the Collective for Research & Training on Development-Action (CRTD. A), a few questions about Namlieh and its consequences in the field. Here are his answers, drawn from a decade of direct interaction with rural women as well as from qualitative action research undertaken on several issues related to women’s economic empowerment.
How do rural women define their own empowerment and the barriers to that empowerment?
Processes of decision making take place at two levels: within the household as well as within the rural women cooperative itself.
Within the household, age and marital status as well as engagement in caring responsibilities play a decisive role in decision-making. Most rural women tend to use their income towards basic household necessities namely for children school fees, health bills and other emergency household expenses. Since the rural women’s income is not on a steady monthly basis but rather comes in seasonal lump sums, it is considered as a contingency fund to meet shortfalls in household expenditure. It is least likely that women, particularly older women with care responsibilities, spend this income for their own personal needs.
At the level of the rural women cooperatives, decision making on expenditures is contingent on the governance of the coop and the influence of its president. The stronger the coop, the more it shows features of participatory and collaborative decision making. Overall, spending in the coops goes primarily to meet the cooperatives dues (especially at the level of the wages for workers) as well as debt. In case there is a surplus, then it is used as investment in the next production cycle.
Though important, generating income is only one aspect of defining empowerment for rural women. For rural women, empowerment is intimately linked with:
a) The fact that they are active and productive outside their households
b) They are active in the public sphere and at the community level
c) They are able to gather and extend solidarity to other women
d) They are constantly learning new things.
Although context specific, barriers are essentially at the level of social traditions and family attitudes. Yet, these are not fixed straightjackets as women continuously negotiate them. An enabling factor is the women’s ability to generate income which places them in better bargaining positions. In addition, a key enabling factor is that rural women are working with trustworthy parties namely their colleagues at the coops, CRTD.A and other relevant actors.
What are the perceptions of men vis-à-vis women’s work in cooperatives? How does this work affect women’s aspirations and expectations?
Our research and our data collection from informants within the household and the community indicate a transformation in males’ perception. This process is slow but tangible as male informants are now able to see themselves the ways in which they have moved from totally rejecting the idea of women’s work to that of acknowledgement, respect and support.
Overall, and as reported directly by rural women and by male members of their households, men are to be increasingly supportive of women’s endeavour to generate additional income for the family. In fact, some of the recent experience shows that there is a beginning of transformation in the distribution of responsibilities within the household with some men starting to take on some household chores to allow time for women to cater for their responsibilities within the cooperatives which, at times include travel outside the village (and occasionally outside the country), a matter which is a marked improvement when compared to earlier practices!
How do you make the invisible work of women visible?
This process is complex, time consuming and iterative. Our experience was based on a progressive action, starting with research and fact finding to raise public awareness on women’s invisible work to including this in policy dialogue and mainstreaming this knowledge into policies, legal reforms and programme interventions. This gradual progress thus, includes a starting point of acknowledging the existing of invisible work, valorising it and institutionalising it.