x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Women in rural areas assert independence

A three-day workshop about economic and social empowerment shows how change begins from within.

We like learning, says Ayesha Saif, a mother of five.
We like learning, says Ayesha Saif, a mother of five.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // Duaa Murad arrived in Rafaq after a two-hour drive, rumbling up a rocky road past a goat. The sun was blazing. The electricity at Rafaq School for Basic Education had cut out.

Still, she found a classroom of more than 20 women waiting to hear her advice.

"We wanted to see what this is," said Ayesha Saif, 32, a mother of five from Ras Al Khaimah. "We like learning."

The three-day workshop about economic and social empowerment was the first of four arranged by the General Women's Union and the United Nations. The course, which began last Tuesday, aims to help rural women become more independent - whether through a job or projects at home.

"The challenge for them is not just attending the training," said Ms Murad, who led the workshop. "It is to communicate and convince the masculine members of their families that what they are doing is worthwhile."

Women in remote areas of the UAE face unique challenges, said Mohammed Ibrahim Mansour, an adviser for the General Women's Union.

"Rural areas, their opportunities are very low compared to cities," Mr Mansour said. "We are trying to fill this gap through building capacities."

The General Women's Union hopes to reach about 100 women through the workshops, teaching them ways to contribute to their local economy.

"Without knowing certain skills, they cannot build self confidence," Mr Mansour said.

Women came from all over the countryside to the workshop in Rafaq, an outpost of Ras Al Khaimah about 15 kilometres from Hatta.

Ms Murad talked to them about social barriers, communication skills, time management and how to market a small business, such as styling hair or selling crafts. The women shared stories, took notes and exchanged phone numbers.

The other three workshops will be in Umm Al Quwain, Ajman and Fujairah.

"I hope that these workshops will teach these women to get economic opportunities ... " Mr Mansour said. "There are so many opportunities in the UAE. And why are women not getting the benefit of it?"

Ms Saif, a mother of five, wants to work. But she said she was unable to find a job nearby. Many men in rural areas commute long distances to universities or jobs in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. It is less socially acceptable for a woman to do so, Ms Saif said. She is thinking about moving to Abu Dhabi.

"In this area, it's very difficult," said Ms Murad, an Egyptian who grew up in the UAE.

Some of the women at the workshop were mothers who heard about the course through their children's schools. Others work for government agencies.

"I do many workshops in other places for schools," said Fatima Saeed Al Dahmani, a government health educator. "And this one is for me."

Ms Al Dahmani, 33, from Ras Al Khaimah, wants to start a community centre in the area. She said it would be a place where residents could take language classes, play sports or simply get out of their homes, easing the pressures of family life.

As Ms Murad began her presentation on Tuesday, she asked the women to discuss the meaning of tamkeen, or empowerment.

"I want to see first what are their beliefs," she said.

Then she asked them about their daily activities: the things they do for themselves, not for their husbands or children. The women said they surfed the internet, played sports, read, cooked and visited family members.

Ms Murad told them that if they had a project they wanted to develop, she would help them devise a plan.

"No one is going to feed you from a golden spoon," she said. "You have to do it yourself."

The women smiled as Ms Murad told a goofy fable about a group of frogs trying to climb a tower. The frogs were told that some would fail. One after another fell. The last frog reached the top.

"What was wrong with the last frog?" Ms Murad said.

The frog was deaf, she told the women. It did not hear the discouraging words.

Recalling the story later, Entesar Ahmed, 40, a teacher from Ras Al Khaimah, laughed and covered her ears.

"I am the frog," she said.

vnereim@thenational.ae