(WOMENSENEWS)--On Nov. 15, the Jeddah Trade and Industry Chamber will be the first public body in Saudi Arabia to allow women to stand in an election.
Women make up less than 10 percent of the chamber's 40,000 business members, but up to 30 women are expected to stand in elections for 18 seats on the organization's board.
Ghassan al-Suleiman, chair of the group, said that when businesswomen asked to participate and vote he was happy to see them raise their profile. He said the chamber will also lobby for more changes in Saudi Arabia to make it easier for women to participate in business, citing a potential danger to international competitiveness if 50 percent of the population is excluded from active participation in the economy.
Jeddah is the main commercial city of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and this is the latest sign of businesswomen making a slow but persistent advance in a country where women are forbidden to drive cars, travel without a male relative or work in the same office as men.
Last summer Saudi Arabia announced its first female editor in chief of a licensed magazine. Abrar Ahmed al-Atheem, the new head at the industry magazine Gold and Jewellery, also manages London-based investments and is a licensed pilot, member of the British Geological Society and chair of a children's charity.
But high-fliers like al-Atheem are far from the norm. Earlier this year, a member of the Saudi Consultative Council, the country's legislature, was threatened after calling for a debate on lifting the ban against women driving.
Calls on Governments
On the heels of this, a September report by the Arab International Women's Forum, based in London, calls for Arab governments to take serious measures to remove barriers to women's participation in business.
"Women as Engines of Economic Growth in the Arab World" recommends that in the interests of both economic growth and social progress governments and international bodies pursue legal equality and programs to help women start businesses.
"The Arab world is facing many challenges," said Haifa al-Kaylani, founder and chair of the Arab International Women's Forum, "and the future growth of the region must be built on making better use of all its human resources, instead of excluding people because they are women."
The report urges Arab governments to update legislation to eliminate the barriers and to grant women in all Arab states equal status with men. The Arab International Women's Forum stresses that education is key and calls for more schools, computer access and university scholarships. It also makes bold calls for men to be given parental leave and to take more part in childrearing, something that many Western governments are still wrestling with.
The report was announced in the imposing British government's Foreign and Commonwealth Office where the British prime minister's wife, Cherie Booth, lent her support to calls for women's development in Arab countries.
Britain's former Minister of State for the Middle East Elizabeth Symons, who was also at the September meeting, said the international community had wasted time talking about development without actually acting. She said "meaty" programs were needed at the grassroots level.
The Arab International Women's Forum takes the same position, saying that rural and low-income women in the Arab world are most in need of assistance and that initiatives for such women face the most challenges, especially in the socially conservative rural areas, where poverty and illiteracy are most widespread.
More Arab Poverty
Poverty and inequality in the region has worsened in recent years, with between 15 and 50 percent of the population living below the poverty line in countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Yemen, and even greater levels in war-torn areas such as Iraq and Palestine, according to last year's U.N. report on the region. The report from the U.N. says that in major Arab countries such as Egypt and Tunisia 10 to 20 percent of rural households are headed by women and, on average, their income was a third less than for homes headed by men.
Also, inequality between rich and poor in the Arab region is second only to Latin America and the number of poor households headed by women has also risen, according to the United Nations' Arab Plan.
The U.N. attributes the spreading poverty to a number of factors, including conflicts in areas such as Palestine and Iraq. It cites high dropout rates for girls. In many countries primary education is compulsory, but in secondary school enrollments for girls are often around two-thirds of that for boys. Illiteracy rates of around 49 percent among Arab women overall is also a factor frequently pointed to as one keeping many in poverty.
The Arab International Women's Forum report also calls for changes to textbooks used in Arab countries so that they don't reinforce stereotypes about male and female roles. The Wadi Seer women's education project in Jordan is an example of a successful move in this direction, having rewritten school texts to depict women in a range of professions, instead of solely as housewives in passive roles.
To redress such problems, women's leaders say women in Arab nations need more initiatives to help with basic education and job skills, as well as access to microfinance to build businesses serving both their home markets and overseas commerce.
Refugee Camp Initiatives
Even in the 50-year-old refugee camps of Gaza and the West Bank, women's enterprise is seen as a way of improving conditions.
Unemployment in the West Bank and Gaza runs between 55 percent and 80 percent of the adult population, according to the Palestinian Authority and U.N. agencies. The World Bank says around 60 percent of families are living below the poverty line of $2 a day.
Years of conflict mean that many jobs done by men have disappeared, as they are no longer permitted to cross into Israel to work in industries such as agriculture and construction.
Training and microfinance for women have helped offset some of the hardship and aided the rebuilding effort after recent withdrawals of Israeli settlers from Gaza.
"Women's enterprise and empowerment is vital in improving the situation, especially for women and children," said Jo Bird, a British entrepreneur who buys fair-trade textiles such as bags and furnishings from women's cooperatives in Palestine. "Women's cooperatives that my company works with in refugee camps such as Deheishe, near Bethlehem, give women the opportunity to replace family income that their husbands or fathers can't bring in because they are unemployed or in detention."
Bird said the cooperative keeps traditional skills in use that might otherwise die out.
"When an order comes in the work is shared out amongst nearly a hundred women so that everyone gets a chance to benefit," Bird said. "When girls see their mothers doing this work and being respected for it, it also means they want to learn these skills too. And because the cooperative is run by women for women, they are sensitive to issues such as child care or social modesty, so much of the work can be done at home."
Funding Small Food Companies
Alternatives is a Montreal, Canada, group that provides small loans from women's centers in the refugee camps of Jebalya and Nusseirat in Gaza. Loans have supported all types of business, from stalls selling agricultural produce to established businesses investing in equipment.
In an environment where commercial loans are hard to obtain and street lenders charge up to 10 percent per month, microcredit offered by nongovernmental organizations is an important way for women to qualify for affordable loans. Programs administered by groups like Alternatives and Save the Children charge as low as 7 percent annual interest, and have flexible terms that allow women to pay back over a few months or a few years, depending on their needs. Women can also increase the amount they borrow from a starter sum of $600 to thousands, if they have a good repayment record.
Alternatives also offers training for women entering the food-processing industry, where skills are needed. If Gaza is to survive without dependency on imports, food preservation and processing industries need to develop and these jobs might fit in well with the demand at home.
Female entrepreneurs say international support, such as that of the Arab International Women's Forum, which offers mentoring and guidance to women's businesses along with interest from sales outlets in Europe and the United States, is key to the survival of these businesses.
Food companies like those encouraged by Alternatives in Gaza currently serve the local market, but as women's enterprises develop they will increasingly need to acquire marketing and export skills through overseas networking and advice.
"International networks and support are very important to us," said Mahera Nassar, manager of Oasis, a business in Beit Sahour in the West Bank that provides jobs for adults with learning difficulties. Oasis was founded on grants and loans from international charities and job creation programs. "They are the way to allow people to know us more and even buy our products."
Sarah Irving is a freelance writer based in Manchester, England.
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For more information:
Arab International Women's Forum--
"Women as Engines of Economic Growth in the Arab World":
"Arab Women Savor Patches of Political Progress":
"Gulf Women Pushing Ahead on Education, Vote":
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