Yemen has long been one of the poorest countries in the Arab world and with a history of civil conflict and particularly conservative cultural traditions, the challenges facing its citizens, especially women, are nothing short of enormous.
The Youth Leadership Development Foundation in Yemen, however, seeks to create change in the country and is playing a unique role to provide young women and men with the knowledge, skills and opportunities to contribute to the economic, political and social development of their country. Linking groups of young men and women to form women-led business teams, this innovative project provides entrepreneurship training as well and mentoring and business incubation services to over 200 aspiring entrepreneurs.
Using the slogan “behind every successful women, there is a great man,” this initiative is broadening horizons for ICT graduates (information and communications technology) and women in the region by working with both men and women towards economic equality and women empowerment in the workforce.
Their latest initiative, the Khadija program, is currently working to enhance female access to the labor market through ICT entrepreneurship training, mentorship, financial incentives by connecting graduates with NGOs and other companies in the civil society industry as interns and aspiring entrepreneurs that can later go on to create their own businesses. This innovative initiative has also been selected as a finalist in the Women Powering Work: Innovations for Economic Equality in the MENA Region competition, launched by Ashoka Changemakers and GE. We had a chance to speak with Safa Rawiah, general manager for YLDF, about the impact of their work:
Elan Magazine: Tell us a little about YLDF’s Khadija Program.
Safa Rawiah: The name was chosen carefully to support promote culture for businesswomen and partnership between males and females in the business. In a country like, Yemen, the culture is very male-dominated and there is lack of understanding of gender equity, more specifically in women rights and capacities. As a youth organization that has been in the field of youth development for over 13 years, YLDF presented the Khadija program to support the economy in Yemen based on the importance of SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and the low percentage of female participation in the labor force.
The name “Khadija” is for the first Muslim woman in Islam. She was not only the wife of the prophet Mohammed, but also the first businesswomen whom used to be highly respected by people in that age and until now. It is important to highlight also that the prophet Mohammed (PUH) has worked for her to help her run her business. So, YLDF’s naming decision has been applied to present a role model of successful businesswomen and a good practice of partnership and cooperation between men and women.
Young female graduates in general face challenges becoming engaged in the labor market, not only because of lack of skills and experience but also culturally since men believe it is a male sector. There is also the challenge of having access to the labor market. Moreover, ICT graduates represent an important group of female graduates who are neglected in many development projects as ICT professionals.
Elan: Why is this initiative crucial for women in Yemen and the Middle East?
SR: An initiative such as ours introduces new horizons for females in the labor market not only as employees but also as business leaders and employers, especially in conservative regions where the demand of physical appearance and commitment to working hours is less flexible. There is also a high level of competition in the labor market and a lack of policies that ensure gender equality and merit based recruitment. Our initiative also allows for women to be creative and use the best of their knowledge and skills beyond male society priorities.
Elan: What are some of the barriers you have had to face with the launch of this initiative? How did you overcome them?
Culturally, business is considered a male sector where females are seen more as secretaries rather that in a leadership position. Business is not seen as opportunistic by youth, so youth tend to search for job opportunities in companies and government entities when there are limited opportunities in those sectors. ICT females are also less fortunate to find jobs as ICT professionals due to the weak level of education in Yemen that fails to respond to the need and demand of the labor market.
To address the cultural challenges, the choice of the name “Khadija” helps reduce cultural resistance by presenting a religiously and culturally respected role model that is seen as a successful. We have also designed two pilots programs one that target young females as business women and one that target young females as ICT professionals to accommodate the recommendations and lessons learned on a third pilot program that is Khadija for ICT young females. In addition to conducting a story that assesses the situation, challenges and recommendations for ICT graduates, we also do promotional campaigns in the streets, media and social media.
Elan: Why do you think economic equality is so important in the Middle East?
SR: It is a basic need for every individual to be economically secured and equally treated. Fair distribution of wealth also promotes and supports better economic stability for communities and countries. Women represent a high percentage of any population, yet their role in enhancing the development still hasn’t been realized. If women are introduced in development and business, we can help improve the situation for women and improve the country’s economic situation as well.
Elan: What advice would you give women who are seeking employment in Yemen or the wider Middle East and North Africa region?
SR: I would highly recommend them that they draw a simple vision for their future, work on their skills and get themselves exposed to others’ experiences. Learn more about other successful experiences and ventures. Take initiatives and don’t wait to be led. Help in changing the culture and don’t wait for culture to be changed. Treat men as partners and learn how to better prepare for and win market competitions with confidence, knowledge, and skills. Finally, I would like women to realize that although there is a saying: “Behind each successful man there is a woman,” it is also possible to let the world believe in and accept that “Behind each successful woman there is a man.” We can therefore establish a new frame of relationship between men and women; one that is structured within the idea of “partnership.”
Editor’s Note: Additional information about the competition, assessment criteria and fascinating trends that are emerging from the finalists’ solutions can be found at www.changemakers.com/
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