Gender equality in Mahweet [Archives:2007/1085/Reportage]

September 13 2007
Women learning as members of a womens association
Women learning as members of a womens association
Stephany Kersten
For Yemen Times

The division of tasks in the traditional families in Yemen is based on the notion that the man is earning the money and the woman is taking care of the family. However, women represent the main source of labor in rural areas, nearly 65 percent of which, are unpaid workers at their family farms or on land leased by their families.

It means that all the jobs which are considered strenuous and fetch a higher wage go to men. Women tend only to be hired when tedious but not so strenuous looking work has to be done. In fact, farm owners prefer to hire women for these jobs not only because it is hard to find men willing to take up work which is traditionally considered women's but also because they will have to pay a much higher wage to men for the same job.

Despite this, women's contribution outside home in many places in Yemen is not seen as a participation in the public life. And hence, men do not share the responsibilities women shoulder assuming they are female's role in society. Men are often absent from the family and if things go wrong in the household, the women are blamed for it. These concepts and gender stereotyping are not instructed by Islam. Taha Hamood Al Azani, a teacher at the Supreme Institute for Teacher Training and an Imam in Sana'a explained that men also have to share domestic duties such as taking care of the children.

“It is not a task for women only, but part of family life: men can wash the children for instance if that needs to be done, nothing prevents them from doing it,” he said.

Women play a primary role in production in rural communities in Yemen, especially, in sustaining subsistence agriculture. They take care of major part of agricultural work including sowing, transplanting, weeding, irrigating, harvesting, thrashing, husking and storing.

Alongside, they often contribute to family income in many other productive ways such as making handicrafts from khus, sewing and weaving. Still, when one talks to communities or decision makers, women do not figure in their agendas.

Gender equality awareness

As a part of the Rural Women's Empowerment Project implemented by CARE International Yemen, a three-day training was carried out last week for 11 men and 6 women from five villages from Al Mahweet governorate on gender from an Islamic perspective. The project, which will last until April 2008, is funded by the French Embassy in Sana'a. Trainers included Taher Hamama, University lecturer and religious scholar and Ibtesam al Sanani, chairperson of the Yemen Women's Union branch in Al Mahweet, supported by Faiza Hisham, the rural women empowerment project manager. Taha Al Azani facilitated the training.

The message of the training is that: Islam supports equality between men and women, including the need for women's empowerment, while this argument was supported by many examples from the verses of the Quran.

The gender disparity is visible in many aspects of life. Disparity starts from the birth through the reactions of men when a baby girl is the first-born. Many men are sad when a first-born is a girl: “my father gave my mother a chicken when I, the first child, was born, and again when my sister was born, but when my brother was born as the third child, he gave her a goat,” said one of the female participants in the training.

Men (and women) should not distinguish between boys and girls, but treat them equally. Both boys and girls have to be educated, not only the boys in the family: “look at me”, a male participant said, “I have gone to university, did my masters, but my sister is illiterate, and we are from the same mother and father”.

The women empowerment project works with 15 women's associations to build their capacity in association management, income generating activities and literacy. This capacity building effort can only be effective if the context in which it takes place is right and allows the women to obtain new skills, hence the need for this training on explaining gender within an Islamic society; to enhance an enabling environment for gender equity.

Real life problems

Women in rural areas such as Mahweet suffer from some traditional practices that impact their well-being negatively. Early marriage is one of the taunting problems women suffer from in Yemen.

A recent report issued by the Central Statistics Organization stated that early marriages are spread among the age class of 15 to 18 since the rate reached 48 % of which 13 % have been married more than once.

The Base Survey on Reproductive Health in 2000 indicated that 24.6 % of women are married between the ages 10 – 14 years and 65 % between 15 -19 years. The problem doesn't lie in early marriages but in early pregnancy and delivery.

The participants in the training commented that Mahweet Girls are getting married at an early age. Contrary to this, some girls in Mahweet complained that they are prevented from marrying because of being a source of income generation. These women often earn an income that they give to their father. When they marry the salary will go to their husband, and the father will not get it anymore. By keeping his daughter at home he preserves her income for himself.

Other problems were addressed such as deprivation of inheritance, and limited mobility.

“Many men do not allow their female family members to go outside of the village, they use the excuse that there is no mahram [male relative to accompany a woman while travelling] available to go with them,” commented one of the participants.

In case of illness this can have serious complications if a woman is not allowed to visit a (male) doctor. Women die because of this limited mobility. A solution, although partial, mentioned was to encourage families to have their daughters trained as health personnel to be employed by village health centres. Rural health centres often lack staff and women have to go further way from their village to attend their (reproductive) health issues.

Spread the message

With renewed knowledge on how relations between men and women (gender) are determined in the Quran and related writings, the participants now will spread the concepts to other people in their environment. A part of the training was dedicated to conveying the newly acquired knowledge to others. How to convince them that women and men are equal while explaining it by using evidence from the holy texts, good ways of communicating (like encouraging body language, making eye contact and the use of hands).

CARE will replicate the training for the remaining 10 villages included in the Rural Women's Empowerment Project in Al Mahweet in the coming months.