Gender in Agriculture Partnership

Transforming agriculture to empower women and deliver food, nutrition and income security

Rural Women, The Heroes Behind Every Village

Rural Women, The Heroes Behind Every Village


By Emad Karim

My mother was 11 years old when she had me, as was her mother when her first child was born.  Both gave everything for us to have a better future. 

I was born in a small village in the south of Egypt almost 30 minutes’ drive from the Valley of the Kings and Queens. My mother, like most of the women of her generation in our village, left school early to marry. As was traditional, her husband - my father - was a relative. 

However, the traditional way of life was disappearing as the population boomed. The farmland could no longer provide a decent life for villages like ours. Fathers had to travel to the Gulf States or Libya or Sudan to work and send money to the mothers back home, raising the children. They became the family executives, responsible for distributing the money, managing land, and being the children’s only mentors. 

In Egypt, the general belief is that no matter who has official ownership of the land, it belongs to the whole family and the father and mother do whatever it takes to provide for everyone. However, this depends on whether the father is responsible and carries out his duties well. If he does not, his wife has few acceptable options for earning a living to provide for her family, and will probably have few life skills and no qualifications to manage a business. This is largely because in Upper Egypt low incomes make parents keen to see their daughters married as soon as possible. But early marriage has adverse effects on a girl’s personal growth, lessens her opportunity to form independent opinions, and makes her implicitly obedient to her husband.

My family was an exception. I was lucky to have a responsible father and grandfather. Even so, my mother and grandmother were both illiterate and my family understood that without education a rural woman has limited opportunities to lift herself and her family out of the spiral of deprivation. So my family invested everything in our education in the hope that we would have good careers. I graduated from New York University and now work for UN Women; among my uncles are a doctor, an accountant, and teachers.   

Seven years ago my grandmother decided to join an evening literacy class. Not an easy task for a mother with seven kids and big household to look after, but she was so persistent. Every night she used to sit on the floor by the winter fire drawing the Arabic alphabet and her name. My grandmother listens to the BBC Arabic Service and Reuters every morning, and in the afternoon she sits with our neighbours analyzing and debating the news and stories she has heard. 

Before my first day at university, my mother talked to me about how she wanted me to live by the same principles by which she and my father have lived. She took a long breath and looked me in the eye and said: “Son, my older son. Do not be a hero! I prefer to see you a coward and alive than brave and a memory. “Your father is good in painting but not in life; he brings enough bread and a few apples in season. We enjoy the flowers we see but we don’t buy them. We do not lie; we do not steal, my son. We live on the edge day by day but never turn down someone in need. You are our older son, the pride of our life: go learn what we missed, fall in love, and come visit us when your heart is broken or indifferent.” 

We do not often hug in our family, and I thought this is a special day. Instead, she handed me a lot of money, smiled through her tears, and left the room.

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