Two-year program to empower Arab women holds first summer workshops
20 citizens from Gulf countries have gathered at LAU to take part in the beginning stages of the MEPI-sponsored Young Women Leaders program.
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This summer marks the beginning of a new two-year program at LAU sponsored by the U.S. government’s Middle East Partnership Initiative to gather community leaders and activists from various Gulf countries in an effort to help them develop women’s rights initiatives in their home communities.
The Young Women Leaders program, as it has been named, officially started on August 1 with a two-week series of workshops on LAU’s Beirut campus aimed at building the knowledge, skills and leadership of the 20 participants, five from each of the four participating countries: Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
“One objective of the workshops is to have the participants develop project ideas, to be implemented in their countries, that would impact and empower women in their own communities and advance their social, economic and political situations,” says Dr. Imad Salamey, YWL program director and assistant professor of political science at LAU.
Most of the workshops are led by LAU faculty and cover a wide range of topics including how to deal with social disputes, use technology to promote oneself, write proposals, and study violence against women.
Salamey explains that the program has been designed with the recognition that female leaders in the Gulf often face more hurdles than their counterparts in other Arab countries. “Leaders in [the Gulf] must be equipped with different skills than a leader living in Lebanon, Syria or Egypt, for example,” he adds.
Apart from the workshops, the summer program also includes meetings with several female leaders in Lebanon including Education Minister Bahia Hariri, MP Nayla Tueni and U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Michele J. Sison.
The YWL program was announced last September when MEPI granted $500,000 to LAU’s School of Arts and Sciences to finance the project.
Since its launch, curiosity and interest have surrounded the program, with applications pouring in from countries across the Middle East.
“We got over 440 applications, some from Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia, even though the program specified that just Gulf countries were eligible,” says Dr. Nabelah Haraty, YWL program coordinator and lecturer of communication arts at LAU. This “is a sign that the program was very well received in the Arab world,” she adds.
Haraty explains that the selected participants have been broken into four groups by country and will spend their two weeks in Lebanon preparing project proposals. Once approved, the groups will be given funds to return to their countries and put their plans into action.
Next year, the same participants will return to report on their programs’ successes and identify areas that need improvement.
Zaina al-Harthi, 32, an Omani participant employed as a human resources manager in her country’s national bank, says her group’s members will join forces to launch a women’s center, the first of its kind in Oman.
“We don’t have any centers back home that deal with women’s issues, whether psychological, emotional, or [related to] increasing the job marketability of an individual,” al-Harthi says. “This is a huge project and it has to be implemented in a span of eight months, so we could use all the help we can get,” she adds.
The participants acknowledge the obstacles they may face while executing their proposals, mostly due, they say, to a general attitude of indifference toward women’s rights in their countries.
Lana Komsany, a 30-year-old theater actress and website editor from Saudi Arabia, laments that her country imposes a ban on NGOs, limiting the options that would be available to her group to develop a project.
“I wouldn’t measure the wealth of a country by its money as much as by the empowerment of its people,” says Komsany, whose group remains unsure about the type of initiative to develop.
Men too were encouraged to participate in the program, and three did join — two from Yemen and one from Bahrain.
Among them is Ibrahim Mothana, a 20-year-old journalist, activist and public relations director of Hewar, a Yemeni organization that pushes for social dialogue.
Mothana, who is also the youngest participant, says his group plans to tackle the issue of women’s education through a campaign urging the country’s leadership to enforce laws stipulating that education is required and free for all citizens, regardless of gender.
“The illiteracy rate among women is about 75 percent [in Yemen] and the education gap between men and women is very high,” he says.
“We’re facing a problem and in the end, I’ve come to believe that our society can’t be developed without educating and empowering women,” Mothana adds. “It’s a fact that we should recognize.”
Today, a closing ceremony was held to mark the completion of the workshops, and was attended by LAU President Joseph G. Jabbra, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Michele Sison and the 20 participants who were each awarded certificates. Dr. Jabbra thanked Sison for U.S. “gifts” to Lebanon, and the ambassador in turn thanked the participants for “breaking a glass ceiling” in the Gulf region.