Establishment of a Lobby Base for Career Women: Substantive Steps to Empower Women [Archives:1997/52/Interview]

December 29 1997

The Government of Yemen has taken this week, one more step in the direction of empowering women. A full-fledged General Directorate has been set up at the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training to see to it that an increasingly higher percent of women are employed, and that a reasonable share of the top slots go to them. This is envisaged as the main lobby base on behalf of career women and women in public life. The power behind this effort is Eng. Mohammed Al-Tayyib, the Minister. But the implementing force is made up of three women – each uniquely qualified to do the job. They are Samra Shaibani, Majida Mohammed Ba-Kaheel, and Arwa Al-Sayid Abdullah. Yemen Times went to speak to them, and assure them of whatever support it can offer. Excerpts
1) Ms. Samra Al-Shaibani is currently working in the newly set-up General Directorate for Enhancement of Working Women at the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. She is on secondment from the Ministry of Planning and Development. Samra is an M.Phil/Ph.D. researcher in gender policy and planning at the Development Planning Unit, University College, London, 1995/98. She holds a BA (Hons) from the University of Central England, Birmingham, 1980. She is the co-author of a report for the UN Fund for Population Activities on integrating Women and Youth in the Socio-economic Process, 1997.
Q: As a gender researcher, can you give us an idea as to the meaning of this term? A: Gender refers to the socially constructed roles and responsibilities of women and men and the relations between them in specific social arrangements. Whereas the biological differences between men and women are apparent and tangible, gender relations are not, nor are they static or homogeneous. They change over time and are context specific.
Q: How do you view the status of Yemeni women? A: Socially, and stemming from the conservative nature of Yemeni society, social relations between men and women differ. For example, women were perceived as passive actors, and only their reproductive role was recognized. Women were not encouraged to participate in many spheres of life – social, economic, cultural and political. Even today, their participation is still limited. Economically, women were not considered as an economic force, despite the fact that the majority of them work in agriculture, in their own families. But their work is unpaid and therefore not ‘valued’. Until now, women’s work in agriculture and the household, though recognized as productive, is unpaid. To add insult to injury, such contribution is not counted in the national GDP statistics. In terms of women’s participation in national policy-making and planning, this is limited to an extremely small number of women in high visibility government jobs.
Q: How do you view the contribution of career women in society? A: Women’s contribution to socio-economic development is extremely vital. Such a contribution depends on 3 factors; namely, the level of education they receive; the extent of their professional qualifications and training; and the culture and tradition of society towards the role of women in public life. Emphasis on female education in Yemen is a strong indicator of the government’t interest in women’s participation in socio-economic development. Educated and qualified women in Yemen were able to leadership responsibilities in various fields of work such as education, health, media, civil engineering, etc. I my opinion, the role an visibility of career women will rise steadily.
Q: Do you have specific data regarding the female workforce and its income? A: The 1994 census states the “paid activity level” at the country level is 15.58% for women and 58.44% for men. In the urban areas the rates were 7.44% for women and 59% for men, whereas the rates for rural areas were 18.05% and 58.22%, respectively. But those numbers do not reveal the whole story. The female workforce in agriculture accounts for 86.84% of the total labor force. There is an alarming level of lack of appreciation for female work in this country, in the sense that there is no financial remuneration for their work. According to the same census, 71.3% of all female workforce was not paid for its effort. The comparable number for men is 9.48%. This gender-based discrepancy comes from the fact that the vast majority of women’s work is seen as an extension of their reproductive role, and thus not remunerated.
Q: If we focus on women with paying jobs, who do they work for? A: Of course, detailed statistics are not readily available. However, the statistics show that 14.73% of career women work for their own business; 12.33% are employed by government, and 46.44% are employed by the private sector. In addition, some women work for foreign organizations (companies, embassies, etc.).
Q: What are the main obstacles that face working women? A: The multiple duties of working women are the main headache. They continue in their capacity as mothers, wives, etc., with the attached responsibilities. Then there is their responsibility for the extended family, tribe or neighborhood. Of course, is they have a job, then it means they have that responsibility. Men do not contribute to the household chores, even if the wife is a career person. I know several instances in which both the husband and wife work (in some cases she earns more than him). Once they come, the husband falls back to the traditional family roles and expects the wife to cook, clean up, take care of the kids, etc.
Q: What can be done? A: Women face a variety of constraints, many of which are gender-specific. Addressing these is a long-term effort. But, we can already take some action. For example, we can work on issues related to education, health, nutrition, maternal mortality, fertility and family planning. Improving women’s productivity and options in the economic shpere is another field. Giving female entrepreneurs training in marketing, credit applications, technologic abilities, etc. will help improve their chances. The establishment of the General Directorate for Career Women Development at the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training is itself another milestone. There are many initiatives undertaken on behalf of women, but these are fragmented and project-oriented. What is needed is a more systematic gender-specific monitoring project performance. Progress towards this will require a consolidated effort by all concerned parties.
2) Ms. Majida Mohammed Ba-Kaheel is currently working at the newly set up General Directorate of Working Women Development in the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. She has a B.Sc. in Agricultural Sciences from Nasser College in Aden. Ms. Ba-Kaheel worked under various capacities in duties related to the development of rural women.
Q: How do you view the efforts made to empower women? A: During the last two decades, 1975-1995, the progress of women and their advancement was high on the agenda of the international community. Women in development (WID) departments in some key ministries were created. But the overall achievement is not satisfactory, partly because these efforts lacked adequate financial support. Therefore, the WIDs have remained marginal to the mainstream development activities of societies and governments. The more universal gender and development (GAD) approach is now increasingly adopted. This aims towards the integration of women in the development process, and the consequential institutionalization of gender policy and planning. As a result, the majority of the foreign funding agencies have now started adopting a gender approach and went to great lengths to publicize this term through holding workshops and seminars.
Q: How about the situation in Yemen? A: In the Yemeni context, what is adopted until now is the WID approach. But women are not part of the decision-making process. For example, I have been following the formation of committee and delegates to discuss the investment plans of the various ministries and corporations. In no case at all do we see a female member. Women are neither invited to participate in the discussions concerning budget allocations whether at local or national levels. National planning is not gender conscious. It treats the population as a homogeneous group, whereas women and men play different roles and have different needs. The concerns of women are not likely to be discussed or remembered by men. The presence of women at all levels of the planning process is critical.
Q: If a woman was to participate in the planning process, what would be different. Could you give specific examples? I know several women’s organizations are active. A: The National Committee for Women (NCW) was entrusted with planning for all women in Yemen. Members of the NCW are not full-time employees, but are affiliated to diverse permanent jobs. They are not consulted in the planning process in their respective ministries and have no authority to comment on budget allocations by the government. In fact, non of those women are represented at the high level posts other than the chairperson of the NCW who is a deputy minister. With such a powerless committee which is lacking in funds and permanent staff, how can one expect it to solve the problems of half of the population. Similarly, the Yemeni Women’s Union, responsible for women at the grass-roots levels is also lacking in funds and, consequently, unable to organize its nationwide activities. The same applies to the various non-governmental organizations that make women the focus of their interest. Concerted efforts are lacking in the work of all organizations, governmental or otherwise, to produce a clear strategy for women or gender development. There is an urgent need for effective networking among all organizations at the local level to co-ordinate programs to avoid duplication, and pay more than lip service on the part of the government.
Q: What will your contribution be in terms of women or gender issues? A: As part of my research in gender policy and planning, I hope to gather information on the number of women holding senior posts in comparison to men in some of the key ministries. I also hope to gather information on the extent of their respective promotion and training opportunities. We need to have hard data on such competitive areas as recruitment, promotion and training in order to judge and correct the prevailing situation.
Q: But one can already see a visible stresses on the part of the foreign donor community on women’s issues? A: I have heard it often said that men need to seek equality with women! That women have the lion’s share of attention given to them by the international community. But only through the use of data will this comment be proven wrong. We are preparing studies concerning women and gender issues by designing a short training package in gender policy and planning for interested institutions as part of an awareness program on this subject. We will establish a gender training team to carry out training programs. This will constitute of persons who have undertaken training in gender studies. Women will play an active role at work. The presence of women in their own work place, in ministerial and in inter-ministerial meetings is important as it is one of the ways to effect change. This, unfortunately, is not happening, in spite of the talk about it.
3) Ms. Arwa Alsayid Abdullah is the General Director of Working Women Development at the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training.
Q: What do you perceive as the impact and role of the newly-established General Directorate for Enhancement of Working Women at the Ministry of Labor & Vocational Training? A: All sides agree that women must be given a chance to participate in the country’s development. But, we need tangile steps to achieve that. Some of these steps are long-term – say, education, nutrition, family planning and health services, etc. But some steps in the short term are also required. For example, I mentioned earlier the need to include women in meetings that discuss the employment policies, promotion, training, etc. Women also need to be brought ion long-term investment decisions and budgetary talks. I see the newly-established general directorate as a lobby base for women in exactly these issues and concerns. Our office will work non-governmental organizations, will introduce regulations concerning working women. We will intervene to ensure equal opportunities for women, to bargain on behalf of female employees, and in general, to promote women in the workforce.
Q: What are the Directorate short and long-term plans? A: In the short term, we are preparing for a national symposium on the vocational training and development of working women. This will be held during 15-17 February, 1998. Employees of our directorate will be visiting Egypt to be better acquainted with the implementation of the working women’s rights project there. A similar project will be implemented in Yemen with assistance from the Dutch government and the International Labor Organization (ILO). In the long term, the multi-purpose project for working women’s rights will be drafted and discussed extensively. Vocational training centers will be opened in various areas in the country in order to help women find better job opportunities. A comprehensive survey of the working women’s conditions will be carried out in all governorates so as to establish an extensive database.
Q: To what extent do Yemeni laws concerning career women actually help them? A: Yemeni labor laws addressing civil service, labor and social security, etc. are quite advanced, compared to those in some Arab countries. Labor Law No. 5 of 1995, for instance, regulates the working conditions for women on par with their men counterparts. Generally speaking, the various Yemeni laws are in agreement with international conventions and they are quite progressive.