Yemen: Women painters brush up on job skills

UNDP_Yemen_youth employment
A young woman painting as part of a youth-employment programme in Yemen. (Photo: UNDP in Yemen)

Beside stuccoed walls at the 7th of July Girls School in the capital city of Sana'a, there is an unusual sight for Yemen: seventeen young women in light blue aprons are hard at work painting.

Highlights

  • UNDP's Youth Economic Empowerment project helps thousands of young men and women in the governorates of Sana'a, Aden and Taiz find employment and start small businesses.
  • Yemen is the lowest-ranking country in the 2012 Global Gender Gap Index.
  • Fifty-three percent of the population is unemployed and 55 percent lives below the poverty line.
  • The project has a budget of US $2.5 million and is funded by the Governments of Japan and Korea.

“I'm happy to learn this new skill so I can take care of my 3-year-old daughter,” says Yusra*, an 18-year-old participant who is also a single mother. “I was forced into marriage at the age of 14 and divorced four years later,” she says. “This work is helping me with the struggle to support my child.”

Yusra is taking part in a Youth Economic Empowerment Project, supported by UNDP and the Governments of Japan and Korea, which is helping to tackle rampant unemployment among young Yemenis. In a country where 53 percent of the population does not have a job and 55 percent lives below the poverty line, the risks of recurring conflict and violence are high.

Since 2012, the project has offered young men and women short-term employment schemes. The participants are then encouraged to save part of their income — which is matched up to 300 percent by UNDP — and invest it in creating a small business.

The project is opening the door to new possibilities, especially for Yemeni women, who are often restricted in the jobs they can do by the country’s conservative culture.

“It is the first time people see women painting walls to earn a living. It supports my arguments with many people that women can adapt to any situation,” says Shafiah al-Siraji, principal of 7th of July School. “Actions speak louder than words.”

Despite learning new skills and developing their own businesses, many women in Yemen lead a precarious existence. Yemen is the lowest-ranking country in the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report, which measures disparities between men and women in critical areas, such as economic participation and opportunity. And since the 2011 uprising, things have gotten worse, with four out of five women saying their living conditions have deteriorated dramatically.

This deterioration of living standards, coupled with the country’s high unemployment and economic problems could leave Yemen vulnerable to a repeat of the 2011 violence. UNDP says it is fundamental to invest in future generations.

“We need women and youth to be engaged in and enthusiastic about realizing their talents and starting their own businesses,” says Senior Country Director Gustavo Gonzalez. “By empowering young people, Yemen is investing in its most valuable asset.”

The project is also challenging deeply ingrained gender barriers within Yemeni society. Even within the school itself, the female painters have encountered resistance. “I do not think women can do this job, it is for men, they are too delicate,” said one female teacher on condition of anonymity.

Far from discouraging the women from painting, however, disparaging attitudes have only made them more determined.

“Why not, if I am not doing anything wrong,” says 24-year-old Intisar, who plans to take up painting as a profession.

In some cases strict social norms can even prove to be an advantage. As contact between men and women in Yemen is usually very formal and limited, painting inside a household can become a complex endeavor. Male painters have to be escorted by a male family member at all times. For women, this could be a much-needed opportunity.

Principal al-Siraji, doesn't have any doubts. “I know [the young women] will find work, especially now that they have proven themselves at the school,” she says.

The young women have now begun to build a new future with their savings. One painter opened a library and a small stationary shop in her remote community, another opened a store making French fries near a park.

“In the beginning we just laughed,” says one of the students. "But then we saw the beautiful work and now I believe that there is no difference between men and women.”

*The participant's name has been changed to protect her identity.

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