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Women, equal opportunities and rural development

Women in rural Norte (Portugal) Lagging behind, assistance needed.

document type: article
keywords: women, equal opportunities
source: LEADER Magazine
last update: 5/96

Jobs are scarce in rural areas in Portugal. Particularly so for women who are ill- equipped on a job market offering few opportunities. For women who have not emigrated, in addition to jobs in tourism, employment in the traditionally female domains such as crafts, farm produce, is often the only way of taking part in the formal economy. Provided, that is, if they succeed in overcoming the considerable cultural and structural obstacles. A look at the situation of women in three LEADER areas in Norte: Alto Cávado, Alto Tâmega and Basto.

"You have no idea of the influence of the Brazilian TV soaps!" says Teresa Lima, the financial director of ADRAT, the local action group in Alto Tâmega (northern Portugal). Teresa would not be the first to astound a visitor to the area with such a comment: the syrupy soap operas that Portuguese TV started to churn out ten or so years ago "have, believe it or not, brought modern influence to the most backward villages", confirms Francisco Botelho, formerly in charge of a LAG and a development adviser in Ribeira de Pena, one of the four "municipalities" in the Basto LEADER area.

The similarity of these remarks demonstrates that Portuguese women have come a long way: the inward-looking attitude that dominated in Portugal for so long, its development lag, particularly evident in the inland area, the paternalistic attitude of the dictatorship years have all left the fair sex lagging behind. The recent influx of consumer society values, brought to the area by TV and returned emigrants, has created needs requiring a sudden demand for money in a rural economy unable to respond, and all the frustration that this causes. "In one way, it is not the 'traditional' rural woman, who has most cause to complain", Teresa explains, "she has never known anything else... It is most difficult for women living in town centres, such as here in Montalegre: since these women are more educated, they want to be free and try to find salaried jobs, which are thin on the ground around here. As for girls who would like to go on to further study, money is often a problem. I am also an economics teacher and I see a lot of girls with potential, but who cannot afford to continue their education."

  • Emigration
At first sight, the countryside of Norte seems highly populated: houses are scattered all over the hillsides and valleys and it is hard to know where villages begin and end. One notices quickly though that a large proportion of the buildings are boarded up or under construction: these big modern houses belong to the tens of thousands of emigrants who have left their homeland to work in France, Germany, the Benelux countries or Switzerland, but who dream of returning home one day to retire. The population density in LEADER areas is therefore relatively low (Alto Tâmega: 30 inhabs/km2) or at best, average (Alto Cávado: 96 inhabs./km2 ; Basto: 83 inhabs./km2), but nowhere is it known what this would be if all the emigrants returned home for good.

Emigration has taken its toll on the rural areas of Minho and Trás-Os-Montes. "Emigration is a last refuge for men, and a road to freedom for women, but is undoubtedly also the cause of many social problems." According to Teresa Lima, emigration has destabilised this rural society, beginning with family relationships: "very often, as soon as emigrant children reach the compulsory school age, they are sent back to their grandmothers in the native village. But having already experienced the consumer society in northern countries, these children have needs which a subsistence economy such as that found in rural Portugal cannot cater for."

  • Self-employment
In the midst of the major transformation which rural Portugal has undergone in the last 10 or 15 years, women appear ill-equipped to "earn their living" and to become part of the official economy: poorly-qualified, their chances of finding a salaried job are low, given the lack of opportunity on the local job market. Self-employment is therefore almost always their only option and the crafts sector (notably the textile trade in this part of the country) is the area which seems to have the most to offer: by giving a professional dimension to the traditional activities carried out by rural women, by setting up a viable crafts sector, the local development agencies, supported by the Portuguese government (Committee for Conditions for Women, Institute for Crafts Employment, etc.) and the European Union (including the NOW, ILE and LEADER programmes), intend to fully exploit this important source of employment for women.

L'Aliança Artesanal de Vila Verde, in Alto Cávado, is a cooperative involving around 80 craftworkers. The origins of this organisation date back to 1948, when at the time, the "Women's Work for National Education", an institution during the Salazar régime encouraged women to do craftswork in the home. "In a way, this inherited association with former times turned out to be an obstacle to setting up our cooperative in 1988", recalls the Director, Maria da Conceição Pinheiro.
"Confined to their household and family chores, women have been isolated for a long time now; and have thus become individualistic. Motivated by their wish to spend more money as well as by governmental incentives, they were slow to enter the spirit of cooperation. Now the income generated by the cooperative has brought with it a feeling of confidence and solidarity. Training in the area of design and promotions that we organised under LEADER have also largely contributed to a spirit of solidarity that did not exist before."
The cooperative therefore succeeded in overcoming an important obstacle, since, as Teresa Lima points out, "as soon as an activity becomes profitable, it is taken up by many women and the local market becomes saturated very quickly. It is then necessary to market the craft activities outside the local area. This requires forming an association, which is very difficult given the lack of training and the individualistic outlook of the women in question."

Along with the lack of solidarity, there is also a lack of initiative and entrepreneurship. Here again, according to Teresa Lima, "the root of the problem is cultural: those who did not emigrate tend to be resigned. There is always the old fatalistic attitude of 'as long as there's enough to eat, we will be alright', which, interestingly, is voiced more often by men than women."

This analysis of the situation, which was confirmed by several of the interviewees, is contradicted by the experience of Maria de Freitas Soares: this dynamic seventy-year-old, treasurer of the Social Centre of Covide, managed to enlist the support of the entire village in order to construct, during 1990-1994, a complex of four buildings housing a multi-services centre, a training workshop and a sales point for local craftspeople. The same individual used her own funds to set up a foundation for local development - Calcedónia - which is currently making preparations to provide Covide with a crèche, a communal oven for baking bread and a catering service. "Setting up a foundation is not very common in Portugal", the leaders of the Alto Cávado LAG point out. This LAG has assisted several training schemes and has provided funding for equipment: "there is no doubt that what is happening in Covide is rather exceptional and owes a lot to the charisma of this remarkable woman."

  • Private
That is why here development agencies count a great deal on the few local women entrepreneurs and do not hesitate to support private initiatives: "I have seen too many collective ventures fail due to commercial problems", explains Francisco Botelho. "Demand for a product is a basic criteria that we look for when deciding which projects to finance."

According to Francisco, this justifies the assistance provided by the Basto LEADER group to the Casa do Campo, an aristocratic residence, with internationally-renowned 19th century gardens. For ten years now, Armanda Meirelles and her daughter Gabriela have offered "Turismo de habitação" (top-quality accomodation in a manor house) and also provide training in embroidery and the art of filigree for women in the local area. LEADER part-financed the conversion of an old outhouse into a shop for the top-of-the-range products, made to order by the local craftspeople. Gabriela Meirelles also markets these herself in Porto and in Brazil. "LEADER has brought new life to this area", says Alfredo Coelho, development officer. "The Casa de Campo is an example of a profitable activity which prompted an awareness in this part of the areas. It directly provides employment for 10 people and gives work to around ten craftworkers."

The ADRAT agency supports Modabarr, a craft enterprise engaged in the manufacture of clothes, which managed to combine tradition and modern-day style: "though this is a private venture, it has already triggered several collective initiatives", says Fernando Montalvão Machado, ADRAT's director. "Upstream, it has enabled the reintroduction of a traditional craft that could have disappeared forever - the spinning of wool. Thanks to the craft enterprise, it has provided 5 full-time jobs; and more generally, it has upgraded the status of local crafts and serves as an example to all the other women that it is possible to adapt traditional products to present-day tastes". Fashion shows, funded by LEADER, have inspired other craftspeople and attracted the attention of a major distribution chain. The purchase of computer equipment has also enabled the modernisation of business management and the manufacture of dress patterns, designed by Agnès Ellouz, a Parisian who has lived in the region for some years now.

The textile sector is not the only craft activity to receive funding under LEADER: the small agri-food businesses also receive assistance. Basto has provided 50% of the necessary funds to modernise a craft confectionery business, owned by two women. ADRAT has provided funding amounting to ECU 15 000 for the purchase of the necessary equipment for the purposes of expanding the Artefumo company, which employs 4 people and which manufactures smoked ham, the speciality of the Chaves region. The owner, Antónia Gonçalves, remarked in passing that she had to get a man to negotiate the purchase of the land: "I didn't have any credibility and I am still wondering if this is because I am young or because I am a woman."

Of course, the other sector generating employment or an additional source of income for women is tourism. In Alto Cávado, for instance, LEADER and the ATAHCA agency have encouraged rural tourism in 11 picturesque villages by providing up to 65% of the funding to restore façades and to build sixty tourist apartments, most often run by women farmers.

So is the involvement of women taken into account when selecting which projects to assist?
"We don't give women special treatment," replies Francisco Botelho, we support families: rural Portugal is characterised by economic, social and cultural conditions that are not comparable to those found in countries that the Portuguese traditionally emigrate to. It must, however, be said that it is being recognised that women who have emigrated, have a major influence on local initiative. The situation of women in rural areas has undoubtedly improved, even there is still a long way to go..."


HCA, Praça do Município, P-4730 Vila Verde
Tel & Fax: +351 53 32 39 66


ADRAT, Av. Tenente Valadim 39, P-5400 Chaves
Tel: +351 76 33 17 71 - Fax: +351 76 22 742


PROBASTO, Bairro João Paulo II, P-4860 Cabeceiras de Basto
Tel: +351 53 66 20 25 - Fax: +351 53 66 20 26

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