“We should practice what we say!” [Archives:1999/13/Interview]

March 29 1999

There is a lot of talk about promoting the role of women in society. There is also a lot of talk about preserving our cultural heritage. Most of the talk remains talk, except in a few cases of foreign-sponsored projects.

But now we have a local company that has invested reasonably in achieving both ends. The Hayel Saeed Anam Group of Companies have established a charity to finance self-help efforts by women. The program is called “Al-Usar Al-Muntigah” – or the “Productive Families” .
They have also tied into the effort to help improve the lot of women. Women in Yemen traditionally do not earn income, even if they work. Their work is not remunerated. The modern sector has created situations in which women can not earn income independently of their male relatives. This has improved their place within the family and within society.
This is the story of one budding example.
Mohammed Bin Sallam, Hatem Bamehriz and Mohammed Abbas of Yemen Times jointly wrote the following interview.
Q: Could we start by an introduction of yourself?
A: My name is Amatal Razaq Yahia Jahaf. I head the Women’s Development Center (WDC). I am a happy wife, mother of two and a successful career women.
I graduated from Sana’a University’s Faculty of Arts.
I am also a writer, I write on topics related to women as well as cultural topics.
Q: Could you tell us about your work?
A: I manage the WDC. This is a charity center sponsored by the Charity Society of Hayel Saeed Anam Group of Companies. We try to train women and help them learn new skills, in order to generate an independent source of income, and thus improve their living standards.
At the same, the purpose is to guide women to learn to produce traditional folkloric products, thus helping to protect and develop our traditional handicraft and culture. For instance, we have an on-going project to classify and duplicate traditional styles of Yemeni clothes. We are doing fine, so far.
Q: How did the WDC start? And how many people are working in the center?
A: We approached the government to support our idea of the center. But we got no response. Then, we approached Hayel Saeed Group, and they generously responded and embraced our project. We started in the middle of 1998.
The center has 8 highly qualified vocational trainers. The center organizes annual training sections. Our courses are all of one year duration, because we want the students – mostly young and middle eaged women – to learn everything possible about the skill they choose. We have different training courses, such as sewing, tailoring, traditional and modern embroidery, handloom, knitting, etc. We also have a section to promote goods that tourists like to keep as souvenirs. We also try to encourage and inspire our trainees to develop modern Yemeni dresses.
Q: Do you plan branches?
A: We don’t have any branches so far, and the possibility of opening branches depends of the success and sustainability of this center.
However, the Hayel Saeed Charity itself finances a large center in Taiz called the Productive Family Center. But it has a different policy, though it aims to achieve the same goals. We hope that our center will develop to be a bigger institution, which can cover the whole of Yemen.
Q: Do you have plans to expand the center’s services to include other fields?
A: Our first priority, at the moment, is to focus on the work at hand. We do hope to establish new sections and departments within the coming two years. We will try to establish different training courses.
We will also try to have branches in Sana’a governorate as a first step in the direction of expanding our services to other regions.
Q: Have much do you sell of the goods you produce at the center?
A: In spite of the fact that the center is relatively new, and is not yet quite known for many people, specially foreigners, we are able to market our products through the different bazaars, which are organized locally by some charities and other NGOs. We had an income of YR. 6,000,000 from the selling of these goods.
We had hoped to take part in Dubai’s Shopping Festival, but unfortunately we could not.
Q: How many trainees do you have in the center?
A: The first batch of 86 trainees will graduate in May 1999. We can provide training facilities to about 100 trainees annually. All our facilities are free of charge including training materials. From my previous work experience, I noted that Yemenis tend not to respect the service that comes free. So we decided to ask trainees to pay a deposit. This deposit is refunded only if the trainee completes the course. Our center provides badly needed services and space is limited. That is why we want people to finish the course they enroll in.
Q: How much is the deposit they pay?
A: It differs from course to another. For instance, the tailoring course requires a deposit of YR. 12,000. It can be paid in installments.
Q: Do trainees get a share of the profit the center makes from selling their products?
A: While they are under training, they get a fixed percentage. For example 30% for the tailoring class, 50% for the embroidery. This helps them to improve their living standards.
Next year we will start a production unit in the center, where we will select the outstanding trainees to run it permanently. We believe that way that the center will be a more self-sufficient organization.
Q: Why isn’t the government supporting such activities?
A: The government is very busy with its own needs. Why should our officials bother about culture or women?
Q: Why did you leave your previous job with the government in the National Center for Preserving Handicrafts (NCPH)?
A: I left for many reasons, mainly because of the lack of funds. We worked for 10 years without a budget for the center, also the treatment we used to get, we were neglected in many ways. We and the officials spoke to different languages, they were not able to understand our problems, in fact they did not want to hear us. So many sections of the center are closed now, it was only then when I decided to leave. The center was suppose to expand and there was a project by the UNDP to enliven five handicrafts, even these project did not see the sun, in spite of the fact that the center was instituted by the UNDP.
Q: What is the role that women can play in the development process?
A: Yemeni women contributed in many ways throughout the ages. They are still contributing. They work on the farm, at home, and in the modern sector.
Since the beginning of the 70s and because of the changes in our society, Yemeni women began producing less for their family needs. New income and imports of ready-made products have enticed women to produce for the family.
But, surely, women can be as productive as men.
Q: Could you tell us about the careers you see women moving into over the near future?
A: Well, women have already made tremendous progress, if you compare the situation now and before the revolution. But, this changing role, in spite of additional burdens – for example a career woman would still be required to do the traditional household chores. In other words, the place of women has not changed. That is because the values have not changed.
Change in the status of women will only come if she can generate an independent source of money. I am a working woman, and sometimes I feel I have been deprived of my rights. The society has not been fair to me as a mother, as a wife or even as an employee. I find myself responsible for everything, but without the authority to do anything.
I know our constitution and laws do not draw lines between men and women. But you see the discrimination in our culture, our social values, and our daily practice. I know that there is nothing to stop me from even running for president, but the reality is different. All over the world, governments encourage women to play their part in the development of society. Here in Yemen, we just speak about it in the media.
Q: What are the solutions to this problem in your opinion?
A: We should practice what we preach. I attended many conferences and I see many double standards. For example, Yemen had signed the International Labor Law, and there are contradictions with the Yemeni labor law. The question is why did we sign this law if we did not intend to honor it? If the government says that a women can’t become a deputy minister or a general manager, the people will submit to that. There is no need to have double standards. Our officials should say what they practice, not what they think foreign donors would like to hear them say.