Syria’s Women Farmers: We Work between Landmines, Near Front Lines

They Called through Majalla for Additional Training Centers for Women to Find Decent Work Opportunities
The war forced Syrian women to work in various fields.
Syrian women work in agricultural fields for low wages.
Syrian women demand training centers to get decent work.

Qamishli- Syrian women’s work in the agricultural sector across the country is not a new phenomenon. They have been working in harvesting agricultural crops, such as cotton, lentils, beans and olives, for years. However, the war that erupted in March 2011 in the country and followed popular protests demanding the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, President of the Syrian regime, increased the number of women working in the fields and orchards where citrus and vegetables are grown. Their numbers are high in the countryside of Lattakia, Tartous, Aleppo, Raqqa, Hasaka, Idlib and other rural areas.

Several women who work in olive picking in the countryside of Idlib governorate, north of the country, said that their work, along with cleaning their farms from weeds have become the only way to provide them with livelihood to support their families.

It is noteworthy that Idlib falls under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), which is al-Qaeda’s arm in Syria.

These women receive their wages in Turkish lira after areas of northern Syria run by Turkish-backed opposition groups switched to the lira as the main currency last year, replacing the massively devalued Syrian pound.

The salary of one female worker is between 15 and 20 Turkish liras per day, which is equivalent to about $1.5, according to the official exchange rate of the Turkish lira, which has been recently devaluing.

“Women in our areas used to work in olive farms owned only by their own families. But after the displacement of people from one town to another due to the war, women were forced to work on other people’s farms to support their families, especially those who had lost their husbands,” another woman told Majalla. 

“The number of working women has actually increased, leading to a decrease in their wages, especially that many farms were burned, causing imbalance in the number of workers compared to the demand for labor,” she added. 

According to this woman, who picks olives and clears her farms of weeds, men also work in this field, but she noticed that they are much less than women. She heads a work team consisting of dozens of women, and she agrees with the farm owners on their wages and work time. She receives a percentage from their daily wages for providing them with a job opportunity. 

There are dozens of olive farms in Idlib province and the Kurdish-majority Syrian city of Afrin. However, the military confrontations in these two areas has resulted in the burning of thousands of hectares in which olive, pistachio and pomegranate trees were planted.

In addition, armed groups that support Turkey and oppose Assad took control of the olive farms and orchards whose owners had fled the area.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said looting olive farms and their crops have become frequent in Afrin and its countryside since the Turkish army and the armed groups supporting it took control over the city in northwestern Syria in March 2018.

Pro-Turkey armed groups cut down trees and sell them as firewood, the war monitor added, confirming what local residents told Majalla. 

A Kurdish man from Afrin said that pro-Turkish gunmen seized 50 of his olive trees and prevented him from harvesting their crops, and they did the same with some of his relatives as well.

Pro-Ankara groups also took over some olive presses and prevented their owners from working in them, the SOHR reported.

In other areas in Syria, women farmers face great challenges. Some of them work on the military front lines between the Syrian regime forces and their opponents, as is the case in the countryside of Hama and Aleppo.

Others work in farms on the front lines between the Turkish army and the US-backed Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), putting the workers’ lives at risk.

A young woman from the countryside of the city of Manbij, north of Aleppo, said that working in agriculture is the only way to secure her daily livelihood, especially since she didn’t complete her middle school education. 

Confrontations taking place near her workplace seems to have become a normal thing for her. 

“Many people were killed and others were wounded after liberating this area from ISIS as a result of the explosion of mines that the organization had planted in agricultural lands, and that is why death and armed conflicts became common,” she told Majalla.

According to this woman and other workers in the crop fields, they work during all seasons since many of the crops in their areas are seasonal, so there is a need for female workers all the time, especially when picking olives, cotton, beans, lentils, onions, and citrus fruits.

They are paid 500 Syrian pounds for every working day, which is equivalent to less than 25 cents.

She called on local authorities to open training centers for women in decent professions such as sewing, embroidery and other professions that do not require academic studies to improve the situation of Syrian women and prevent them from engaging in hard work.

“I work from dawn to sunset for a very low wage,” she said, stressing that whoever objects is asked by the “shawish” to leave the workplace.

The shawish is the person who supervises the work of the female workers in agriculture and receives a higher wage without working like them in the field. He is also the one who agrees with the landlord on the number of female workers and the number of working days. 

A young Syrian woman farmer in the city of Raqqa told Majalla that since liberating the city from ISIS, working in agriculture has become the only job opportunity for its residents. 

“The terror group destroyed the city and displaced its residents, leading to the suspension of various industrial and service projects. Therefore, we have no choice but to work in agriculture, a profession that is not restricted to women only, but also to men.”

“Agriculture in the city of Raqqa and its countryside has always been a major source of income for the people. But after most of the men and youth emigrated due to the lack of job opportunities, this profession has become a main source of income for women,” she explained.

Despite this, working in farms alone hardly secures their livelihood, she noted, stating that in addition to her work in the fields, she relies on some of the money that her brother sends to her family from his work in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.

Working in agricultural fields and farms is almost the only profession accepted by the community in Raqqa, she stressed, noting that its residents mainly belong to various clans, and this is why the demand for work in farms is high in light of the lack of job opportunities in other fields.

It is noteworthy that local and international organizations have repeatedly called for improving the conditions of Syrian women working in the crop fields and preventing them from working in places where mines were planted or near the front lines. 

But poverty forces most of them to work in these conditions, according to what they told Majalla. 

The landmines planted have indeed killed dozens of women. In 2021, 13 Syrian women were killed in central Syria after mines exploded where they were searching for the “truffle” crop, which grows in uninhabited and uncultivated areas.

It is also not safe for women to work in agricultural fields in areas under the control of the opposition, as they work on the front lines between the regime forces and the opposition in areas that are constantly bombed, which makes working in such conditions similar to committing suicide.

On March 12, a woman was killed and two were injured in agricultural fields in a town located in the southern countryside of Idlib after the regime forces bombed the area. 

Seventy percent of all workers in Syria are women, Al-Watan, the semi-governmental Syrian newspaper has recently quoted Jamal al-Qadiri, the Secretary-General of the regime’s International Federation of Arab Trade Unions, as saying. This statistic dates back to early 2021.

The rate of women working in different sectors in the country has increased after dozens of women lost their husbands or family members in the ongoing decade-long war. They work in professions that are not rejected by society, such as agricultural fields and farms.

Civil society organizations that were established after the war have contributed to providing small projects in various fields, including agriculture, for women to be able to work.

These projects are mainly implemented in rural areas where agriculture is almost the only source of income. They also contributed to the increase in the number of working women in the areas where non-governmental civil society organizations are active.

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