DAMASCUS, /IRIN) - Hundreds of women across rural areas of Syria are reaping the benefits of a micro-credit programme run by the World Food Programme (WFP) since 1996.
Tagrid is just one of hundreds of women who benefitted from the micro-credit programme in rural parts of Syria
Targeting those living in the most remote areas, some 3,500 women have been involved in the programme with 1,775 participating in "Start Your Own Business" (SYB) courses as part of WFP’s fruit tree plantation project.
Including their family members, 17,500 people have benefited from WFP food aid under the same programme.
The project, which used to cover all 14 Syrian governorates, is now focusing on arid and semi-arid zones in 10 governorates where households are exposed to drought, directly affecting their livelihoods and food security.
"Despite the significant progress in the field of women’s empowerment in Syria, some major challenges still need to be faced," Mohamed El-Kouhene, WFP representative and country director in Syria, told IRIN from the capital, Damascus.
"Women bear the brunt of rural poverty with literacy rates in some areas being as low as 15 percent. Women are struggling to assert their role by accessing physical and human assets to improve overall household income and to ensure sustainable livelihood," he added.
Syria is a low-income country with a food deficit and an economy largely dependent on agriculture, providing 30 percent of employment and employing the largest number of women.
Beneficiaries of the WFP programme are entitled to loans after completing the SYB training, which covers several aspects of project implementation including basic economic principles. Short and medium term loans are provided for individuals and groups.
The projects financed are in the fields of animal husbandry, food processing and agriculture, with the maximum amount of loan is 100,000 Syrian Pounds, nearly US $2,000.
In addition, technical skills training courses related to the type of project implemented are provided and food aid is distributed as an economic incentive during a period when women are investing their time and resources in a new productive activity.
One of the many women benefiting from the micro-credit programme is Taghrid. It has been eight years since she first took part in the scheme and she is now self-sufficient in providing for her family.
Taghrid started out with two cows and has now managed to repay her debt and has increased her income five-fold. She also built a new shelter for her animals, dug a well and started growing vegetables for her family.
"This is what we learned during the course. They even taught us how to market our products and how to deal with traders," she said.
The micro-credit programme has been of particular importance over the past few years following a severe drought between 1998 and 1999, leaving farmers to struggle and forcing herders to sell up as they faced huge losses.
To ensure that villagers are not short of food while trying to establish their own business, rations are distributed for one year to enable them to get things up and running. The ration includes wheat flour, vegetable oil, lentils and dates.
By giving these women access to education and credit, the project aims to integrate them into mainstream socio-economic development.
While there is some reluctance from females in villages to take on such a responsibility, those who have already benefited such as Taghrid say they will encourage others to do the same.
Micro-credit is one of WFP Syria’s programmes, which address issues of rural poverty, household food insecurity and gender inequality. Two projects have already been completed: assistance to fruit tree planting in the green belt and assistance to reforestation and range land management.
In addition, support is given to farmers and herders on marginal and degraded lands, focusing on poor people in the Syrian steppe and the green belt.