Women painters fight unemployment, challenge gender stereotypes (yementimes)

ImageAt the far corner of the Seventh of July girls’ school, 17 young women in blue jackets diligently apply fresh paint to the walls of the school. These young women are engaged in the “3×6” approach, a two-month hands-on job skills and small business training program sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) via its Youth Economic Empowerment Project (YEEP).

“We enjoy our work. We really like painting,” says one of the girls.

The YEEP’s 3×6 approach has introduced painting as a way for the young women and men who participate to generate an income, which they are encouraged to save as start-up capital for their own small businesses—so that they can generate a sustainable income.

The main goal of the program is youth job creation, however YEEP projects exceed this goal by building in other positive effects on the communities it touches, such as infrastructure repair, financial management skills, improved hygiene, and greater opportunities for women to enter the workforce, just to name a few.

The “3×6” approach has three main cornerstones, inclusion, ownership and sustainability, and each of these has two sub-components which form the “3×6” idea. Yemen’s projects enjoy additional support from the Dutch and Japanese governments and For All Foundation, a national development-focused NGO.

In Yemen, as in many Arab countries, women and men are usually separated socially and contact between the sexes is formal and closely monitored. Painting work inside a home is not a straightforward process, because a male painter must be accompanied at all times by a male family member.

It is quite unusual for women to work as painters because culturally, it is not considered to be a female profession.

This project provides young people with professional training and also sufficient start-up to launch a business. The project sees economic empowerment as a vital part of the country’s economic recovery in the current political transitional period.

Participating youth are paid for their work, which benefits the community, and they also receive life skills and business development training. Each participant is encouraged to save two-thirds of their earnings, and there is a big incentive to save, because upon successful completion of the training program, whatever they have in their bank accounts will be tripled by the UNDP.

They can then use this money—alone, or in partnership with other participants—as seed money to launch their own businesses—not necessarily painting businesses—creating work for themselves and, it is hoped, for others as well. While building their businesses, youth are mentored and supported by the UNDP with additional support from the government.

In addition, the “3×6” program continues to follow and mentor its graduates, providing additional business skills support as they launch their own businesses.

The young women in the painting program are glad to have a daily income because it makes a huge difference in their lives. The 2011 revolution had a strongly negative effect on the incomes of all Yemenis, and women have been the most severely affected.

Oxfam International’s recent report, “Still Waiting for Change: Making the political transition work for women in Yemen,”  found that four out of five women participating in the study felt that their living conditions had deteriorated dramatically following the uprising.

Yemeni women not only face poor living conditions; Yemen is rated the lowest (130) in the Annual Gender Gap Report which measures disparities between men and women for many critical areas, one of which is economic participation and opportunity. Yemeni women have an extra burden to carry when it comes to earning a living.

However, social norms may sometimes be used to the advantage of young women. “I told some of my colleagues that I thought they would be so comfortable having a woman paint their house that they would not even think of taking a day off to stay home—as they would if a man were to come to their home,” said Abbas Al-Falah. Al-Falah is the painting trainer, and he has 22 years of experience in painting.

A student at the Seventh of July school agreed with what Al-Falah had to say, saying, “my mother told us she wished that we could paint, but this was just a little dream. But seeing these women paint, well, it was the first time that we had seen [women do] anything like it. Now, we believe we can learn how to paint, too.”

The school community was initially hesitant about, and even skeptical of, the women’s ability to do a good painting job. “We were surprised to see all of these beautifully painted walls,” commented a young student.

One of the participants is 18 years old and divorced. “I am delighted to learn this new skill so I can take good care of my three-year-old daughter,” she said. She was forced into marriage when she was only 14, and divorced four years later. Her family’s poverty compelled her to work to support her child.

Not surprisingly, rumors and skepticism surround the trainees.

“I do not think women can do this job, it is for men—they are too delicate,” said one of the female teachers, who asked not to be identified.

In addition, some of the trainees themselves were unhappy with what they felt was a strike against tradition. One of the participants says that she will not pursue painting as a profession, but will use what she has learned to beautify her house and benefit her extended family.

The sight of women working as house painters is not a common one in Yemen, and regardless of whether they will be able to prove themselves in this profession, they have already achieved some success in breaking down a conservative stereotype of what constitutes women’s work.

“It was hard to convince people by just talking, but when people see the women hard at work, it’s a different story,” says Shafiah Al-Siraji, the principal of the school.

Some women believe they can do any work just as well as men can. Intisar Al-Hubaishi, 24, plans to take on painting as her profession, without accepting any limitations on her career.

“I will not stand out in the street to market myself but I will [advertise my services] in a more appropriate way,” she adds. She believes women have the potential to improve this profession. Al-Hubaishi hopes to change the common perceptions of “men-only jobs” and thinks that women will be in high demand as painters.

Although some people are still hesitant about the idea of women taking up painting as a livelihood, there are others who think they will make it. “I know they will find work, especially now that they have proven themselves at the school,” says Principal Al-Siraji.

“It is the first time that people have seen women painting walls to earn a living,” says Al-Siraji, “but it supports [my belief] that women can adapt to any situation. Actions speak louder than words.”

Along with painting, the young male and female participants all receive regular basic business and life-skills training to help develop and support their future business projects. During the current income-generating phase of the program, one-third of each participant’s earnings are deposited into a savings account. In phase two of the project, participants’ savings are tripled via a grant for feasible business ideas and they are provided with technical support and mentoring for their newly-created small businesses.

Some of the young women have already identified business projects—not necessarily painting—and are consulting with their trainers on how to make their ideas a marketable reality.

One will open a small library and office supply shop in her suburban neighborhood. Another plans to open a French fry stand near a community park where no competition currently exists.

Having learned how to paint is still very useful to them on a personal and professional level. Some say that even if they do not work as professional painters, they will use their new skills at home. “Even after I start my own business project, I will not drop painting; it is a good way to make money. I have acquired a valuable skill, so why should I waste it?” says one of the participants.

All of the young women joined the program with the goal of improving their living conditions through jobs training in order to secure a sustainable income.

Thanks to their determination, a new understanding and a momentum seems to have developed. Take, for example, the following words of one of the girls at the Seventh of July school.
 
“In the beginning we just laughed, saying, ‘hah! they think they can work like men’ but then we saw the beautiful work they do. Really, now I believe that there is no difference between men and women.”

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