Fighting food insecurity in Syria through women-led gardens

Fighting food insecurity in Syria through women-led gardens

Mar 19, 2021

A decade-long war has had damaging effects on the Syrian economy. Food prices are at a record high since 2013, increasing by as much as 200 percent. Coupled with lack of sustainable income sources and now the COVID-19 pandemic limiting opportunities even further, general livelihoods of everyday people are suffering. Even with humanitarian aid offering households food baskets and food vouchers, the ability to put diverse and fresh food on dinner tables is limited, creating additional nutrition and sustainability issues. 

With funds from the European Union, People in Need (PIN) is working to tackle this issue of food insecurity and diversity by supporting household gardens – led by women. With agriculture vouchers, female heads of households with medium-sized gardens can purchase necessary items, ranging from seeds and fertilizers to small tools and irrigation systems, to cultivate their land and grow produce to support themselves and their families.

Why focus on women? Because while the ongoing war continues to destabilize markets and livelihoods, “women accessibility to the small functional portion of existing markets remain limited by traditions and cultural restrictions,” says PIN Livelihoods Program Manager, Ghaith Al Fakhri. “PIN is empowering women to sustain their lives, feed their children and contribute to the recovery of local markets with culturally acceptable work opportunities.” In the second implementation year of this EU-funded project (2020-2021), PIN exceeded its initial target of beneficiaries reached, supporting over 1200 women in the cultivation of their household gardens.

“Life was much better and we had a very good income from working in farming,” says Nadwa, 50, from rural Idleb. “We used to work as partners with other land owners and took 30 percent of the final earnings; it was a very good amount. Now, it is no longer possible for us to rent land and plant in it.” Living with her seven children, two grandchildren, and mother-in-law, Nadwa moved from co-farming with neighbours on larger land to sustaining her family from her household garden.

“Things in general, and farming in particular, has gotten much worse. We partially lost our income and at the same time, we need at least 200 USD every month to meet our needs,” Nadwa continues. “Very often we have to buy our bread needs in debt.”

According to a PIN-conducted needs assessment, lack of money and increased price of food are the two core factors limiting people’s access to food among the hundreds of surveyed households in the target area. The top three coping mechanisms for financial hardships are purchasing food on credit, borrowing money, and getting into debt.

With vegetables selling for high prices in local markets, Nadwa’s produce can’t compete. Everything she grows, is just for her family’s consumption.

“We received vouchers worth 30 USD by People in Need and we bought seeds. We planted onions, beans, parsley, spinach, radish in addition to some cauliflower. Later, we received vouchers worth 95 USD and we bought hoses for dripping irrigation, a small water tank, and some tarpaulin.”

In addition to monetary support for food production via vouchers, PIN is also facilitating workshops and trainings by agriculture specialists.

“We learnt about the importance of buying quality seeds and how to know this,” explains Fatima, 31. “We also learnt about land and soil preparation and fertilization in addition to fertilizer fermentation.”

Fatima was a registered nurse a few years ago, but lost her certificate in the chaos of the war and is no longer able to work in her field. She can’t return to school to obtain another certificate as there is no secondary school in her village and she cannot travel by herself due to security situation. “We depend almost totally on the land that we can work,” she says desperately. “I work in the olive harvest sometimes, but it is not something permanent.”

With an initial 30 USD voucher from PIN along with the supplemental training, Fatima purchased seeds that were previously too expensive, and learned how to enhance the quality of her plants and extend their life.

Apart from seed and soil preparation, PIN offers trainings on pest control and water enhancement practices. The voucher system was modified slightly during the second year of this project’s implementation to better address differing water needs between areas. Additional support is given to households in communities that do not have free and easy access to water, relying mostly on water tanks and irrigation systems.

“Two agronomists from the organization trained us on winter farming and how to care for the plants and irrigate them by dripping,” says Amina, 75.

“We are consuming most of the vegetables we plant. I give some to my daughters and if there is some more left, we can sell it,” Amina describes. “Now that the cabbages are big, I told my children we will be cooking lakhana mehshi (rolled cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and meat).”

“My son Hasan said we will be cooking it just with ghee (vegetable fat) and oil, but I said we will buy even some meat.” Meat is all too common a luxury that families are unable to afford, next to fresh fruit and vegetables. With this garden support providing a self-sustaining avenue for fresh produce, families like Amina’s now have at least some opportunity to purchase other food items important for their nutrition and general quality of life.

Thank you to the European Union for their generous funds in making this support for these women in northern Syria possible.

Author: Omar Khattab and Megan Giovannetti, People in Need