Nadia Al-Sakkaf joined Oxfam-GB in 2003 and worked in the Humanitarian Program as well as in the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper while being the media person of the organization in Yemen. Nadia became chief editor of the Yemen Times in March 2005. She has represented Yemen on public platforms internationally. Her areas of expertise are development issues, gender and media in the Middle East especially Yemen. She has received the first Gebran Tueni Award in 2006 for professional media from the World Association of Newspapers and An-Nahar Newspaper in Lebanon.
She stared at the money in her palm for a long time while tears slowly trickled down her face. After a long silence Hana, a 19 year old Yemeni woman spoke, “This is the first money I have ever held in my hand that is mine.”
“How do you feel?” asked the director of the women’s shelter where Hana had been living in for the past four months.
As if reborn and with an empowered voice, she replied, “Strong.”
The story of Hana is one example of the barriers faced by Yemeni women. Born into a violent environment where her vicious father abused women, Hana lived her childhood believing that she was worthless. The purpose of her existence was to serve the men in her life whether her father, brothers or her future husband. At the age of 15, she was married off to an equally abusive man who beat her continuously for simple mistakes she had made. After one and a half year into the marriage, a three-month pregnant Hana fled her husband’s house in Hodieda and somehow made her way to the capital city of Sana’a. She slept on the streets for days sustaining her fragile body through begging.
The police found her one night; she had suffered a miscarriage and was lying in the street on the brink of unconsciousness. Fortunately that very police unit, who had found her, received a training funded by an international organization on the rights of women and they knew how to handle the situation. So instead of taking Hana into custody as they used to do, they took her to a shelter where she received medical and psychological treatment.
For the past three years Yemen has ranked last in the Gender Gap Report, produced annually by the World Economic Forum. The indicator measures the gender disparity in four areas: Health, Education, Politics and Economy. Due to the gap in the area of economic empowerment in particular, the dependency rate in the country is one of the highest in the world, ranging between 1:7 and 1:12 in times of conflict, such as today. These numbers signify that the production capabilities of women - who make up more than half the population (51%) in Yemen - are significantly under utilized. Women, such as Hana, have little access to financial resources, legal systems or means to empowerment. One in two women is illiterate and less than 20 percent of the national workforce is female and primarily work in the agriculture industry as farmers rather than as land owners.
Currently there are only 12 micro-credit institutions in the country that provide loans specifically for women. There are several conditions and strict requirements in the application process that not many women are able to satisfy. In addition, five million Yemeni women are readily waiting for a job, a high demand that a mere 12 micro-credit institutions could satisfy. Many women are also unable to reach the institutions either because of inaccessibility or cultural barriers that do not allow women to be their own decision makers, particularly in the area of finances. So these women are unable to get a head start in generating income or improving their condition.
“We believe that the one thing that can make women’s situation better is economic empowerment. So we help our guests [residents of the shelter] develop income generating skills,” said the director of the shelter Hana resided in.
In the case of Hana, they found out that she could bake beautiful Yemeni cakes that became a hit in the shelter, which were subsequently marketed to the local community. She received her first order to make ten cakes for a wedding and the shelter helped her with the pricing and delivery.
Today, with the help of micro credit lending, Hana is the proud owner of her bakery service which she runs from her home in Sana’a. She got a divorce and managed to bring her younger sister to stay with her and help her business. She is also going to night school to finish her education.
This may be a happy ending for one young lady but there are millions of women who are still awaiting a breakthrough in their lives. This is the main reason micro-credit projects with wide reaching capabilities are probably the best development projects that could be created to help empower women in developing countries such as Yemen.