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Gender, Land Rights and Slow Onset Environmental Change in Morocco

Loubna Ou-Salah, University of Antwerp – Belgium

The subordinate position of rural women in Moroccan law and society hinders their ability to respond to slow processes of environmental change. To better grasp change and continuity in the countryside and the gendered consequences of climate change, it is crucial to study the daily life experiences of peasant women. This approach is especially important since their unequal position in society is the result of complex negotiation processes and is not simply the outcome of structural forces (Bossenbroek, 2016). This study also looks at whether these slow environmental changes are altering the position of women in the household.


Most studies in the field of agricultural change focus on privatization processes or sudden environmental change, the consequences of which are easier to document than those of slow onset changes such as sea level rise, loss of biodiversity, rising temperatures, desertification, and land and forest degradation (Ahlers, 2010; Bossenbroek, 2016; LastarriaCornhiel, 1997). But large geographical areas—in Morocco as elsewhere—are confronted with slow onset changes and are expected to suffer even more in the coming years (IPCC, 2022). To date there has been little research into the gendered consequences of these environmental changes and the different ways subjects experience and understand these processes (exceptions include Van Praag, 2021; Gioli and Milan, 2018).


Unequal gender relations and access to resources make women more vulnerable to environmental change than men (Masika, 2002). Individuals’ adaptive capacity is highly dependent on income, education, health and access to natural resources, and women tend to be poorer, less educated, less healthy and have limited direct access to, or ownership of, natural resources. As a result, women are disproportionately affected by environmental change (Demetriades and Esplen, 2010; Masika, 2002). For example, Chindarkar (2012) states that environmental change—especially due to global warming—will negatively affect food production and the availability of natural resources such as water. Since women are primarily responsible for collecting water for the household, a shortage of water may increase the burden on women.


Given the country’s extensive agricultural production, increasing desertification and drought due to climate change are eroding people’s adaptive capacities since their resilience is largely related to land ownership, sales, mortgages, or products of the land (Adger et al., 2018). Land inheritance and ownership is gender specific in Morocco, a situation that can be traced back to the period when it became a French Protectorate in 1912. The ‘Dahir’’ degreeof 1919 transferred overall responsibility for communal land from indigenous authorities to the state. This shift facilitated land appropriation by the French colonists and its incorporation into capitalist modes of production (El Khalaoui, 2022). After independence in 1956, the state retained the same structures established by the French colonial regime to control land transactions. Specifically, the state established committees of male representatives who spoke on behalf of their rural communities. In addition, a tutelary council was established within the Ministry of the Interior to centralize decision making, oversee transactions, handle disputes, and distribute compensation (Salime, 2016).


Consequently, inheritance law in Morocco remains one area of law regulated by the Mudawwana (Morocco’s Family Code) rather than by the Civil Code. In 2004, several reforms were made to the Mudawwana to address gender inequalities, yet the Law of Succession was not amended (Berriane, 2015). Under the current law, male relatives receive double the inheritance share of a woman, making these provisions of family law particularly unfavorable to female children and surviving female spouses. With fewer resources, women’s access to education and health care is more difficult, increasing their economic precarity (Yavuz, 2016).

It is worth noting that the Qur’an and the Sunnah clearly explain that although women do not have equal rights to men in terms of inheritance, they do have special rights related to inheritance, dignity, and custody of the children in the family (Haque et al., 2020). Specifically, Islam secures women’s financial rights, which must be handled by a male legal guardian (such as her father, brother or husband), and stipulates that financial support is a mandatory responsibility in all life circumstances (for example, the financial support of a daughter by her father, of a married woman by her husband, of an orphan by her grandfather or paternal uncles). Research by Haque et al. (2020) shows, however, that these Islamic principles are often violated in practice, especially when an inheritance is divided among heirs after the death of their parents. As a result, women who are unmarried, widowed, divorced, or do not have sons frequently experience dispossession, leading to their impoverishment and eventual settlement in slums located near their communal land, according to Salime (2016).

Addressing women’s inequality: Efforts by citizens and the state

The first social movement in contemporary Morocco to protest women’s marginal status in land rights was the Sulaliyyates movement of 2007 led by rural women. The Sulaliyyates movement gives utmost importance to communal land as a critical element in the quest for economic liberalization, developmental endeavors, and improved political representation, as stated by Salime (2016). (Salime, 2016). The Sulaliyyates movement strongly condemns the widespread corruption within the systems involved in land liberalization. They also raise concerns about the pervasive sexism present in interactions with state officials who oversee land transactions. Furthermore, they highlight the impact of the colonial legal framework and traditional customs, which prioritize indigenous men in these transactions while excluding women. (Salime, 2016). The land right, which -refers to rights to use, control, and transfer a parcel of land - was eventually given to them via a series of ministerial circulars that were issued by the ministry between 2009 and 2012. Real reforms, however, were still not forthcoming (Berriane et al., 2015).

To further address the challenges facing women in employment and social inclusion that are affected by slow onset environmental changes, the Green Morocco Plan (GMP, Plan Maroc Vert) included the issue of gender inequality in their two pillars of reform between 2008 and 2020. The first pillar aimed to accelerate the move toward modern and competitive export-oriented agriculture and the second aimed to support the transition of smallholder farmers from traditional family farms to more modern farming practices. These goals were to be accomplished through the conversion, intensification and diversification of local natural resources, while also promoting the sustainable use of natural resources and employment of women in the most isolated parts of the country. Here, conversion” refers to the process of transitioning towards modern and export-oriented agriculture. “Intensification” refers to increasing the productivity and efficiency of farming practices, while “diversification” refers to expanding agricultural activities to include a wider range of crops or products. While this plan sounds promising in theory, the GMP has raised some serious concerns, primarily around social class and education. Berriane (2011) and Damamme (2014) have shown that illiterate rural women play a subordinate role in these cooperatives compared to more educated women who are endowed with higher status and more responsibilities. Similarly, Montanari and Bergh (2019) found that only educated people in the region can benefit from projects in the second pillar, given the administrative burden and the necessary initial financial contribution. Therefore, they argue that the external guidelines of the GMP were not designed to give women agency to express their needs, define their aspirations and act on them.


The ability of rural women to express their needs and aspirations when confronted with environmental change is affected by a range of behavioral codes in rural Morocco that define the appropriate behavior of women, depending on social differences such as age and marital status (Bossenbroek 2016). For example, different standards and codes of conduct apply to unmarried, married, divorced, and single mothers. Married women in early marriage are usually responsible for household chores and do not perform other work outside the home. Young married women usually do not perform any work on land owned by their in-laws, so their activities are limited to cooking, washing, cleaning, and caring for the children. Unmarried women are subject to slightly different codes of conduct. Their behavior is tightly circumscribed and controlled to prevent gossip and not damage the image of a good future bride, wife, and mother. If women deviate from the dominant female rural ideal, they risk being questioned. In such a context, a misstep can easily lead to harsh judgments and gossip. Adhering to these behavioral norms can therefore restrict a local community’s options as they adjust to the increased need for seasonal work due to slow onset environmental changes. More specifically, environmental changes can increase the need for seasonal work in the whisky industry due to factors such as shifting harvest seasons, unpredictable weather patterns, and the demand for temporary labor during peak production periods. Income is lost because of the unfavorable views of women employed in the agricultural industry, for example when male farmers and supervisors use derogatory terms to describe female wage workers as unmarried women who engage in inappropriate conduct (Bossenbroeck, 2016).



In this article, I use insights from in-depth interviews conducted with farmers in Morocco (all the respondents in this study identify themselves as male or female). Using qualitative data provides a better understanding of how people perceive and deal with their vulnerability to slow onset environmental change and the social security and land inheritance systems, as well as a clearer picture of the available resources and opportunities within the household. We chose this approach because there is growing discomfort among scholars with the conventional scientific representations focused on numbers of people living in rural areas, which have often not done justice to their own narratives and explanations.


During the period of October and November 2021, we conducted qualitative semi-structured interviews with inhabitants of the Souss-Massa region in Morocco, particularly in Houara, Tiznit, Belfaa, Tamraght, Tagadirt, Tikouine, Taliouine, Taroudant, and Imouzer. Respondents were selected through snowball sampling, starting from connections made through associations. In total, 38 interviews were conducted, with 15 female and 23 male respondents. The age of interviewees ranged from 19 to 82 years old. The participants were all dependent on agricultural tasks for their livelihood (either on a self-employed basis or as employees on larger farms). These interviewers were chosen because communities that rely heavily on agricultural activities are more vulnerable to water scarcity and suffer more from drought than other communities. The rural women in the Souss-Massa region are often uneducated and in some cases illiterate, which led many to refuse to participate as they did not feel entitled to be interviewed. To ensure that respondents did not feel intimidated, I briefed them clearly about the objectives of this research and invested sufficient effort and time to develop a relationship of trust, which included asking for a tour of their fields as well as cooking and eating together.


The main goal of our method of biographicalnarrative interview is to generate a spontaneous autobiographical narrative (Apitzsch and Siouti, 2007). By enabling the participants to tell their own stories and creating a context in which they feel comfortable exploring their feelings and experiences, we can learn more about those aspects of their lives which crucially affected their adaptive capacity. We asked participants about their perceptions of environmental changes in their surroundings and how these perceptions changed over time, their knowledge about environmental changes and migration dynamics. Since migration is often seen as a potential adaptation strategy to deal with environmental changes, all participants were also asked whether they aspired to migrate, their motivations to do so or reasons to stay, and whether these factors were related to the environmental changes they perceived. Qualitative research methods, namely this biographical approach, enabled us to systematically study the long and fragmentary nature of migration trajectories (Findlay & Li, 1997). All interviews were transcribed and translated into English. The data analysis facilitating software Nvivo was used to structure, code, and analyze the data. All names were replaced by pseudonyms to guarantee anonymity.

Environmental Change, Migration, and Agriculture

Amin et al. (2019) demonstrate in their research how rural women play an increasing role in agricultural production, yet their contribution continues to be largely overlooked in development plans, conventional agricultural and economic analyses and policies. Several women indicated that the lack of land ownership is one important reason why they are often absent in plans and policies and that their lack of ownership strongly impacts their life decisions. Women’s economic instability can also be reinforced by the family law provisions on inheritance in Morocco. These rights are particularly unfavorable to female children and surviving female spouses, as they give male relatives double the share of women (Yavuz, 2016). We heard these concerns from many of our interview subjects: 

We women start off at a disadvantage compared to our brothers, for example. Here, men still prefer to have sons so that they can pass on everything. It is very difficult for us women to inherit, and especially in agriculture this is a big disadvantage because then it is literally all about what we have put so much work into that then goes to brothers or sons who often invest much less time in it. But I know that the law will never change. Because I only have daughters, I am sometimes afraid of what the future will bring. (Fedoua, 45 years old, Houara)


Yes, at the moment my husband is seriously ill, so I am responsible for everything. That does bind me and I have a lot of fears because of that. I myself am not the owner of land, just as is rarely the case here in Morocco. We simply gain access to land through male relatives, such as a spouse, brother, or father. Because of this arrangement, we are always very vulnerable; a death, divorce, or simply a change of mind on the part of a man can leave us without land and therefore no income. (Yosra, 35 years old, Taroudant)

Furthermore, women’s lack of property ownership resulting from the gender-specific land inheritance system renders them more reliant on the decisions of male family members regarding their livelihood and economic activities. Like most male farmers, the younger generation of men, who are slated to inherit and take on the responsibility of cultivating and maintaining the land, no longer show interest in the agricultural sector. This situation also affects the farming activities of women who have invested significant effort in the land for years. For instance, Karima, a 25-year-old resident of Talioune, recounted that her father did not wish to keep their land due to his advanced age and the increasing challenges posed by drought, which had led to a decline in profits. Her father also realized that to endure the droughts, he would have to invest more in his land, which due to inheritance agreements would never be owned by his daughters. Therefore, he chose to sell it and use the proceeds to make ends meet. As Karima explained, “My father decided to sell it [their land] because it became too expensive for him because of drought and costs of water.”

Daouad, a 40-year-old man from Tikiouine, also speaks about how “the next generation” of men and women no longer continue their agricultural work as there is not enough work. He states that this trend has been partially influenced by changes in the weather:


The weather has definitely changed here. Rain used to already start this month. The climate has changed even for the bees. It’s sometimes surprising because you get to the orange blossom season, but there are strong winds that prevent the flowers from blossoming and disperse everything before the bees ever get a chance to feed, even after we’ve prepared everything for the season, and after we spent money on it. […] We prepare for six months for that one particular season, and it’s only one month of orange blossom. It’s that month where we make the most profit of the entire year, and if anything goes wrong with it we lose a ton of money, so it is a big risk. […] These risks also mean that our children, or for example my wife, can’t continue to work with me. It is already a tough job and it is getting tougher due to weather changes, which means we have to make choices as to what to put money into.

Despite the limited employment options available on family-owned agricultural land, we found that women are compelled to explore alternative income-generating avenues, while men continue to exploit the limited opportunities on their own property. An example of this phenomenon can be observed in the account of Fedoua, a 45-year-old female resident of Houara, who reports that the region has been experiencing severe rainfall after prolonged periods of drought for a number of years now, resulting in significant disruptions to agricultural operations and household income.

I actually started looking for a job three years back when this region began to be threatened by floods as there are cases of heavy rains that go on for more than three or four months. Then we have to stop farming, we are put to a stop, and sometimes it takes all of our produce and leaves the land drowning in one meter of water and sometimes it can reach one meter and a half. The floods even destroy our wells. During those periods, nothing could really be done, and the men are always playing chess. But, of course, we could not survive with that, so then it was most logical that my husband would take care of the farming and that I would look for an external income. (Fedoua, 45 years old, Houara)

The decisions made by fathers regarding the future prospects of their daughters are also shaped by the consequences of environmental changes. Unpredictable weather patterns and escalating drought conditions led to a reduction in cultivated areas, resulting in declining profits for small landowners. The existing land inheritance systems and the adverse consequences of environmental changes render the land less suitable for agriculture, making it less appealing for investment. This situation profoundly impacts the status of rural women, who are dependent on men and cannot inherit land, and has led to a shift in household decision making and a decreased focus on agriculture. Consequently, wages earned by women workers, both within and outside the household, assume a critical role in sustaining the livelihoods of rural families. Our study revealed that when seeking assistance, smaller-scale farmers tend to hire women for lower paying and labor-intensive roles, rather than men. Although these female roles are considered rather easy jobs, they require patience and accuracy (Baada and Najjar, 2020). Despite unfavorable working conditions, women persist in taking on such challenging work (Bossenbroek and Ftouhi, 2021). Therefore, while formal employment is frequently viewed as a means of empowerment in Western socities(de Haas and Van Rooij, 2010), in reality this trend may render rural women more susceptible to economic, social, and cultural exclusion.


This research highlights the ways in which the consequences of gradual environmental change fall disproportionately on women and intensify the precarious position of women in society by taking into account local gender expectations, dependencies, and gender-specific land inheritance systems. Our results reveal that uncertainty about environmental changes can increase women’s vulnerability, leading to actions such as families selling their land. Prolonged periods of drought are exacerbating women’s insecure position as it leads to a rise in seasonal work. While men continue to utilize the remaining opportunities on their own land, women are often forced to explore alternative avenues to generate additional income. Hence, gradual environmental changes can aggravate the vulnerability of rural women, making them more susceptible to economic, social, and cultural exclusion.

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