Why the Near East Foundation (NEF) Engages Women in Development

Monday, December 19, 2005

Countries that promote women’s rights and increase their access to resources and schooling have lower poverty rates, faster economic growth and less corruption than countries that do not. Countries with smaller gaps between women and men in areas like education, employment, and property rights not only have lower child malnutrition and mortality, they also have more transparent business and government and faster economic growth, which in turn helps to further narrow the gender gap. In short, education, health, productivity, credit and governance all work better when women are involved.

That’s what the World Bank has written–and what the Near East Foundation knows first hand from its long experience working at the grassroots. Increasing gender equality is central to NEF’s concept of development as freedom that expands the choices and control people have over their lives. That’s aptly exemplified in the stories of the nine community-base organizations providing services to women among the 30 finalists participating in NEF-Jordan’s Qudorat Project.

The multi-year, multi-million-dollar, government-funded project aims to boost Jordanian civil society, while encouraging more proactive income-generation–and the job creation, local economic stimulation, and long-term sustainability of these non-governmental organizations and the services they provide. Selected from among 300-plus competitors, both the General Union of Volunteers in Jerash and the Bani Hamida Women for Social Work are most evidently led by charismatic leaders with a mission.


In a word, Enaya Khaleil is a dynamo and her organization has been voted the best community-based organization Jordan, just one of the numerous awards and certificates of recognition filling her spacious office. A high school graduate a long time ago, Ms. Khaleil has been involved in social work since 1971 when she volunteered in a kindergarten and later became involved with family planning, literacy and school drop-outs. Bespectacled, diminutive in height, rapid fire of speech, she scurries busily about looms and other machinery or around worktables and in sales areas abundant with the clothing, rugs and myriad fruits of women’s labor.

Now 30 years old, the General Union of Volunteers has taken female national hobbies and turned them into a business, teaching and encouraging women in the traditional craft-making of Jordan–sophisticated embroidery both by hand and machine; colorful weaving of all kinds and sizes; pottery manufactured into lamps and shades, plates and cups, ashtrays and other items; many objects in metal and wood; and culinary skills as well.

But the latest crop of participants, currently about 150 local women are being trained in design, patterning, execution, and work at the union’s headquarters or out of their homes. They follow in the footsteps of the divorced women with one daughter and no job. She was taught handicraft skills and now owns here own shop with five employees, has access to important social security benefits–and has gained solid self-esteem from surpassing the incomes of her four better-educated sisters in good positions. Then there was the women with many children whose husband was away in Oman. Unemployed, she learned food preparation and catering at the union, and now is the best known party-giver in town with a staff of 10. Or the woman taught embroidering and now a supervisor in Saudi Arabia. Or the woman…Ms. Khaleil has hundreds of success stories to tell!

In the last few years the General Union of Volunteers has averaged about $100,000 a year in business–but they could do better with improved marketing, particularly given the busloads of tourists who come to town to visit Jerash’s famed Roman archaelogical site and in the capital city of Amman, less than an hour’s drive away.

Their biggest problem, she says, is the economic situation in which they operate, the expense of materials, the labor-intensity of their craft-making–not conducive to gaining an appropriate profit margin. But thanks to the Qudorat Project, Ms. Khaleil is getting the technical expertise and networking opportunities she needs to obtain more financial assistance, support with the writing and proposal preparation necessary for funding, and an administrative boost in areas like bookkeeping, among other helpful shoring up of this valuable and venerable Jordanian women’s organization.


A poster on the office wall of Wafi Al Alamy, M.D. and founder just last December of Bani Hamida Women for Social Work, offers this advice: 1) do one thing at a time; 2) know a problem; 3) learn to listen; 4) learn to ask questions; 5) distinguish sense from nonsense; 6) accept change as inevitable; 7) admit mistakes; 8) say it simply; 9) be calm; 10) smile. Dr. Alamy clearly has followed many, if not all, of these daily reminders, given what’s been accomplished in less than a year in her husband’s native village.

Her children grown and with some available time, she started alone and slowly with only six members– and now has 140, aged 18 to 65. They were attracted by an intensive awareness campaign with two workshops held weekly: Sundays on how to have a vision and plan for the future; and Wednesdays on homemaking skills. Plus, there were literacy classes from the beginning and medical days with clinics in pediatrics and gynecology, her specialty.

Her ambition? “How do you get women–cut off from the outside world–involved in the development of their village and the region. There’s a relatively high unemployment rate among women who are at home with nothing to do, so how do you get them revenue–for themselves,” Dr. Alamy emphasized, since women spend income on their families and men buy luxuries…is her opinion.

A case in point was the widow with five girls and three boys, one of them mentally challenged. “When we met her, she had nothing…she couldn’t feed her children when she came and told her story,” Dr. Alamy remembers. But she did have an idea. She wanted to make bread at home, so she was given the equivalent of $70 to buy flour and the Bani Hamida Women for Social Work pitched in on distribution and sales. From that initial capital, she made three times that amount, and expanded her home operation by buying three goats to make cheese and butter. Now she has 30 animals and can feed her family just fine.

“It’s an example,” says Dr. Alamy, “All women can do the same. The focus was on providing income to give women more power and more choices,” she continued. There were no conflicts from men about this; rather resistance came from women, from female competition and tribal issues.

But that can be dealt with and since August some women in the group have been busy milling flour from cereals purchased from local farmers, while a dozen others hand-pick and cleanly-package lentils, roasted wheat, bulghur and other grains, also the products of local agriculture. They work together in a “factory” in a small building adjacent to their headquarters, which in turn features a dazzling display of colorful crafts of all kinds, including impressive rug weaving, and jars of their home-made jams, pickles, and traditional desserts. In September a kindergarten opened with two children and in no time at all had 35. Family planning clinics began in October.

There are 6,000 people in Bani Hamida and the overall area, called Faqou’a, contains five other villages, doubling the population to 12,199. The average family has six members. The main source of income is retirement and military pensions, farming, and cattle breeding. However, local farmers and milk producers experience difficulties marketing their products.

Bani Hamida Women for Social Work plan on turning that problem into an opportunity. They want to use the homemaking skills of their membership to establish catering kitchens that will provide organic meals for special occasions like parties, weddings, funerals. Now people of Faqou’a and Qaser rely on restaurants in nearby downtown Karak, where foodstuffs are imported from the outside.

But the Bani Hamida women would purchase the abundant natural ingredients–fruits, vegetables, cereals, and dairy products–produced by local farmers, supporting and marketing their yield. They would meet consumer demand by providing high-quality, organic meals for all occasions; and in the process, create employment opportunities, generate income, and improve the standard of living of their membership. All for the cost of about $45,000.

“I first heard about Qudorat in the newspaper and emailed them from home. But we didn’t meet the criteria. We were too new…only 25 members…no projects,” Dr. Alamy recalls. “But I told them, ’Don’t look at the application…come visit us!’.”

NEF staff accepted her invitation, and from that field visit, Bani Hamida Women for Social Work was selected one of the 30 finalists, from among the 73 community-based organizations visited, from among the 300-plus who applied. Now they eagerly await the decision on which 30 Qudorat finalists will be the 20 to obtain funding for income-generating projects. “We work together with the NEF staff and make a good team,” Dr. Alamy concluded.


Economies in the developing world grow by three percent for every 10 percent increase in the number of women who receive secondary schooling–since women are major economic contributors, according to the United Nations. In fact, China traces the drop in the number of its poor to its comprehensive approach to poverty eradication among women. Between 1995 and 1998, Chinese poverty fell from 65 million to 42 million, with women comprising 60 percent of those set free.

In another promising fact, over the last decade the number of women represented in government increased from 16 countries to 97.

But big challenges remain with women comprising these unfortunate majorities: 70 percent of the 1.3 billion people in the developing world who live on less than $1 a day; two-thirds of the 860 million adults in the world who cannot read; and 58 percent of persons infected with HIV/AIDS.

Source: alertnet (link opens in a new window)