Youth breaking the gender bias: Towards more equal and sustainable future
Unlocking the potential of young women to tackle challenges in their communities and be drivers of inclusive growth, gender equality and sustainable development in the Arab region is highly needed. However, knowing that women face challenges and biases to do so is not enough. We all need to contribute.
On International Women’s Day 2022, we tell stories of young people from the Arab region who are already taking action.
The youth have participated in UNDP’s Youth Leadership Programme (YLP) between 2018 and 2021. YLP supports young women and men across the Arab region to unleash their power for positive change and develop innovative solutions for development challenges in their communities.
New role models for girls
“When I was younger, I used to play basketball with the boys because there were no teams for girls. I always had to prove myself. If our team won, it was although I was a girl. If we lost, it was because I was a girl. I was not seen for my skills, but just for being a girl.”
Mona Yaacoub is a 28-year-old sports journalist from Lebanon. Her journey has taken her from playing with the neighbourhood boys into a professional basketball team and starting her own organization, Play in Her Shoes, promoting the right of girls and women to play sports.
“I have always been passionate about women’s rights, but when I was interested in sports, I could not see any role models. The media was not giving attention to the achievements of women in sports. I wanted to change this perception and give women the attention they deserve.”
Many girls in the Arab region stop their hobbies, especially sports, when they become teenagers. Mona notes that this often happens because physical sports are not seen as suitable activities for girls. Even if women could do it, they are seen as inferior to men and their skills. But, according to Mona, sports could bring many positive effects for women: physical health, mental strength, confidence, leadership and teamwork skills, and determination to reach their goals.
“I want girls who love sports to feel less stressed that they would not fit in the role the society wants them to be in. I want them to feel free to be in their own skin, without being forced into a box.”
Play in Her Shoes has grown from an online platform featuring women’s stories to sports activities and events, sportswear line producing socks, and gender equality awareness sessions. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Mona organized online movement sessions for women across Lebanon to keep them moving. She has also started self-defence classes that help women tackle harassment on the streets.
“We should motivate women to believe in themselves. That they can make a change, no matter how small it is. And that creating change is contagious: once you have started, others will join you.”
For her, equal and decent work
In October 2021, a group of young Jordanians came together during training for the Youth Leadership Programme. They all shared a common interest: to promote women’s rights in one way or the other.
One of the team members told a story about a friend who had been scared to lose their position in the company she was working for because she was pregnant. The team started to see stories like hers everywhere and decided to tackle discrimination against women in the workplace through a project called “Laha لها”, which in Arabic means “For Her”.
“Women in the workforce in Jordan tend to struggle from various issues, including fewer employment opportunities, societal and cultural discrimination, and in some cases, even lower salaries and pay”, says Farah Ghanma, 21.
Even though Jordan has a relatively high rate of women’s enrolment in the educational system, their participation in the workforce is still low. When in the workforce, women are often struggling in realizing their rights, even if the legal framework would guarantee them equal pay and maternity leave.
“We hear that many women face problems with their employers, who do not see their work as equal to men. When women face this discrimination, many do not know their legal rights or might feel that taking legal action is too difficult and would cause too many problems”, says Hala Jamal, 21.
26-year-old Madlin Khaled notes that encouraging women to tell their stories and create awareness about their options is vital in changing the situation.
“When we see a woman talking about their challenges, we feel that we are not alone. There is power in growing networks and awareness. We need to strengthen women’s confidence to go after their rights.”
Hala agrees and continues that young people are already finding and creating spaces to tackle societal issues. Every discussion with friends, parents, colleagues or even employers can help spread awareness and create networks of like-minded people.
The team has started a blog and uses social media to spread awareness about the issue. In the future, they aim to establish a hotline that women could use to report incidents and get legal advice on how to deal with them.
“In addition to benefits for the women themselves, decreasing the gender gap, providing equal opportunities, and ensuring less discrimination towards women in the workforce can play a great role in enhancing the economic situation and contributing to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals”, finalizes Farah.
In addition to Farah, Hala and Madlin, the Laha team consists of Saba Yazead, Mohammad Shraim, and Dulama Ali.
Gender equality is not only a women’s issue
For him, women’s rights and gender equality are vital for achieving a more sustainable future. As part of the COP26 delegation of Tunisia, Dali led the dialogues on gender and climate action.
“When we talk about the transition to a sustainable way of life, we need to include women and minorities in the discussion. They have not been in the driver’s seat before. Now it is the time to have them lead the discussion and create solutions.”
Dali thinks that activists from various fields should come together more to see the interlinkages between the agendas. Working towards a future where the rights of women and minorities are recognized is a task for the whole society, including men.
“Many think that promoting gender equality is limited to women only, but this should not be the case. Traditionally men have been in the position of power. We should be using our privilege for the greater good and promote the right of everyone to speak for themselves.”
Dali is the founder of Nafas, an NGO that works together with activists from all over Tunisia and the Arab region to change policies and create awareness on human rights, equality and climate action. Dali notes that they want to build relations between youth and officials to work together, not in opposition to each other.
“I believe that climate change can be a uniting force for us in the region. It is threatening all nations, and thus we need to come together to create concrete action so that the next generation will not inherit our problems.”