A few thousand North African women have found lucrative jobs in the sheep wool weaving and carpeting sector. However, the increasing appearance of droughts in already water-stressed areas over the past three decades have led to a decrease in the supply of sheep and wool used for carpets.
Um Jamal, 37, is one of about 30 women working in the wool workshop in Matrouh province, near the Egyptian border with Libya. She is one of many women concerned about losing her jobs in a male-dominated society threatened by climate change.
On October 15th each year, the United Nations celebrates the International Day of Rural Women. The theme of 2019 focuses on rural girls and women's resistance to climate change. However, in a sector of the economy dependent on hand-woven wool, the issue seems both complicated and difficult to handle.
While there are no recent official statistics on the decline in the number of sheep in North Africa due to drought and lack of rainfall, local media reports indicate that the number of sheep has fallen by almost half since the 1990s.
Since then, many small North African towns have established small factories to promote sheep wool carpets, one of North Africa’s most important crafts.
Umm Jamal and her co-workers at the textile factory in al-Qasr village in Matrouh province inherited the yarn and weaving craft from their ancestors. In the past, women worked together in the manufacturing of carpets for personal and family use. However, the changing lifestyles and the spread of machine-made carpets have transformed handmade carpets into a luxury item.
The rich are buying handmade carpets, inspired by respect for the environment. Local authorities have also tried to open carpet outlets for foreign tourists.
It takes several months to weave a handmade carpet. A two-meter-wide, three-meter-long piece to hang on the wall can be sold for hundreds of dollars, while the larger pieces for the floor can be worth thousands of dollars.
Um Jamal says that her annual income from working in spinning and weaving sheep wool was enough to support her family, but the decrease in wool supply has stalled the entire industry.
International organisations are trying to solve the difficulties faced by women working in the handmade carpet industry in North Africa. Italian, German and other organisations have provided training for 500 girls from Egypt and Libya to continue practising this rare craft, despite high wool prices caused by the lack of sheep.
According to the Egyptian government's news portal Akhbar al-Youm, the number of sheep in Matrouh province, known as "Barqi Sheep," has fallen from about 1 million in 1990 to just 300,000 now due to desertification and dry pastoral areas.
A 2018 United Nations report says Libya is among the most drought-impacted countries in the world. Pastures are typically located in rain-fed areas along the coast, where annual rainfall has been declining for years due to climate change. According to a report highlighting northern regions of the Mediterranean coast in Egypt, rainfall in this region is extremely low, irregular and unpredictable.
In southern Tobruk, Libya, the lack of wool has shut down at least two workshops. Most of those who lost their jobs were Bedouin, rural women and girls totalling about 70. In al-Qasr village, work is no longer as consistent as it used to be. Seldom do you see now Umm Jamal weaving wool yarns in the workshop.
In conservative Bedouin and rural communities such as those in North Africa, discriminatory social norms still prevent women from participating in decision-making, while they bear the burden of confronting poverty and supporting their families in an unstable male-dominated world suffering from climate change.