The silent warriors

Filed on July 6, 2014
The silent warriors

According to a 2013 OECD report, less than one in four women in the Middle East and North Africa seeks paid employment — and 20 per cent of those women are unemployed. AMANDA FISHER meets some of the region’s silent warriors in this battle for equality

ONE DAY SARA KHURRAM found herself at home watering her plants. This prosaic task was to change her life — and the lives of many women around her.

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From left, award winners Nermin Sa’d, Sara Khurram, Seher Ahsan Hafeez

The young medical school graduate had recently given birth. Before she got pregnant she was undertaking a medical residency, but everything changed after having her first child; she got post-partum depression and did not have the will to go back to practicing. Much like the 80 per cent of all Pakistani women who graduate from medical school, she had slipped into a life without work.

As she tended her plants, a neighbour approached. “What do you do?,” she asked. Khurram told her. In response, the neighbour delivered a question that would set Khurram on a path of discovery and emancipation:

“Then why are you at home, watering the plants?”

Khurram says this was the trigger that pushed her to discover a new way of delivering medical treatment and to go on to found organisation DoctHERS-in-the-House in 2013.

The Pakistani mother is one of three regional winners of an award to recognise the efforts of women in the workforce, Women Powering Work — a joint initiative between social entrepreneurship organisation Ashoka Changemakers and General Electric.

The winners, who each received $25,000 to channel into their projects, recently spoke during a panel attended by finalists and other guests from around the region in Dubai.

Khurram’s organisation uniquely addresses two problems common to women in Pakistan: it creates a way for female doctors who cannot access the workplace to work from home, and it provides healthcare for millions of women living in marginalised communities.

“Every year around 85 per cent of those who graduate from medical schools around Pakistan are female, but only 20 per cent ever go on to enter the workforce — many aren’t allowed to,” Khurram explains.

She goes on: “One in five women die in rural Pakistan during childbirth because they are forced to deliver at home… this all sounded very normal to me until I realised I was one of those doctors who couldn’t practice any more because I had a baby… so I thought I should change this.”

DoctHERS-in-the-House allows Khurram and other female doctors to be virtually connected to other women and patients who cannot access proper healthcare — many for cultural reasons. In addition to communication software, Khurram says she has now managed to source software that allows her to make accurate diagnoses from a distance. But this has not been her biggest challenge, in a country where many are wary of technology.

“In Pakistan, we’re not used to tele-clinics… we’re a little laidback on technology, we don’t accept it, we don’t like Skyping a lot as a nation.”

The main hurdle Khurram faced was being taken seriously, fearing she would struggle to get patients for her USAID-funded project.

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“That is exactly what happened. For the first six days, I was on my computer staring at my screen and nothing happened. On the seventh day a woman came to me… Still it’s a long way to go in changing the mind set about physical consultation to virtual consultation.”

She hopes for big changes in society in relation to how far technology is implemented, in the next decade.

THOUGH OF AN older generation, fellow winner Nermin Sa’d tells a similar story. The Jordanian engineer moved to Saudi Arabia after her marriage.

“At that time the engineering field was 100 per cent dominated by men and I wasn’t able to work as an engineer outside of my home.”

Not to be deterred, and with the help of her husband, a fellow engineer, Sa’d built up a virtual network of business, picking up freelance work which she completed remotely, from home — something that became necessary after she had children.

Moving back to Jordon, Sa’d was determined to not only continue, but expand. She put an advert in a newspaper, seeking more female engineers to help her complete work for construction companies operating in the Middle East and North Africa region.

The seven-word ad was direct: “Female engineers required to work from home”. Sa’d says within seven days she had more than 700 responses.

Men, she says, have often tried to pigeonhole her. For as long as 10 years, many clients did not know her gender — but, when they found out, they started to view her work in a different light.

“(Gender changes) how people look at you in the Middle East… what capabilities they expect of you.”

To compensate, and to armour her new recruits, Sa’d has developed a particular outlook.

“If we don’t push the boundaries around us we will never know our potentials…thank God I pushed it. The major (challenge) I was afraid of has gone away because I’ve pushed that boundary… it’s good to be encouraging yourself and challenging yourself… what’s the worst that can happen? Nothing.”

THE FINAL WINNING initiative, Busanti — a campaign by not-for-profit company Naya Jeevan — was started to bring poor women in rural Pakistan a way to travel safely, while offering them education on preventive health through animated videos which play on board.

Seher Ahsan Hafeez is Busanti’s Project Leader. She says in Pakistan, there are only four seats on any given bus allocated to women. The women relegated to using this dangerous transport are those from marginalised populations who are forced to work in order to put food on the table.

“Pakistan is the third worst country to live in when it comes to gender equality….when it comes to the public transportation system, you see these opulent large kind of dilapidated buses running around the roads, driving extremely fast, with men lodged inside the buses.”

The ‘public health’ buses Busanti operates, paid for through employers’ subsidies that can be paid through health insurance, bridges the gap between two unmet needs for Pakistan’s women:

“Access to safe transport and access to quality healthcare.”

These winning organisations are prime examples of women working for women; more than three quarters of the 107 entries in the competition were from organisations led by women.

This is the positive side of a story of discrimination. All the women who spoke described hurdles and gender biases that they themselves needed to overcome in order to make good.

IMELDA DUNLOP SAYS the pipeline of talented women in the Middle East has sprung a serious leak. The executive director of not-for-profit The Pearl Initiative, which promotes ethical business and women’s role therein, says the stories of these women encountering bias, discrimination, obstacles and deterrents “resonates so strongly” with the stories she has already heard.

“We have a huge number of extremely talented women at the start of their career (in the Middle East)… If you think of it as a pipeline, it’s leaking seriously… We have to figure out how to strengthen that pipeline if we are to change the situation.”

This should start by making it possible for women to stay in the workforce in spite of motherhood, getting rid of biases at middle management levels, ensuring women continue to get training to keep at the cutting edge, and giving women confidence to put themselves forward for jobs.

“There is a serious business case for all businesses to have more women at the top, because it leads to better decision making, better care…50 per cent or more of all clients are women.”

It is a tired and outdated assumption that men make good leaders because they don’t let feelings get in the way. Ashoka Changemakers senior project manager Cynthia McKinney Drayton, says it is precisely feelings — more specifically, empathy — that make for good leaders.

Most, if not all, of the people who introduce lasting change to society have empathy by the bucket, she says.

“Empathy is the most important 21st century change-making skill along with leadership and teamwork… those movers and shakers are people like (Nobel Peace Prize Winner) Muhammad Yunus…who came up with micro-finance.”

Really? Is she certain this is not just management speak from image-conscious corporations designed to make women feel valued?

“Whether they call it that or not, I know so.”

McKinney Drayton says her son recently graduated from the Naval Academy, where the US Secretary of Defence gave three areas of advice, all to do with leadership.

“He actually said as his second piece of advice…the ability to put yourself in the shoes of the men and women that you’re going to be leading is critical to your success as leaders…that is the definition of empathy.”

The Solution

But if this female-associated value is so highly prized, why do these three women believe they have had to struggle, alongside their female cohort?

Khurram says it comes down to gender discrimination.

“The main reason of bias, I can say for my country, there’s a gender difference. Whenever a boy is born, they are very happy. When a girl is born they’re not that happy… when they are raising children, the boy will get the leg piece of chicken because it’s better and the girl will get the rest. The gender difference starts from a very early stage. Boys are always sent out for education, girls are not, boys are expected to be the leaders… the girls are not.”

She gives the example that men in rural areas of the country often do not even know the first name of their own mother.

“As women, when we have a baby boy, we also become very proud…. and we raise them differently. Bias will end when a mother teaches her boy to respect a woman and also teaches her girl she doesn’t need to be treated differently.”

Hafeez agrees, but says change will come through education.

“It all boils down to education. We are all expected to fit this mould… and if you don’t fit in there, there’s something wrong with you… it really would help if there was more literacy in education.”

Disturbingly, Sa’d lays much of the blame on women themselves.

“In my opinion, I believe the problem is in ourselves. We have a very common disease, which is a lack of confidence. We are ignoring the fact the world has changed… we just keep copying our mothers and grandmothers… at their time they should accept (inequality of work opportunities), because there was no other choice, but in our time there is another choice and we need to take that.

“Again the problem is with the mothers who discriminate between their girls and their boys… we just keep raising the female to be a very good wife and all other aspects, and ignore the fact (the man) is a husband and give him the tools to be a good husband.”

She says if you can empower mothers to be good role models, “you change a whole generation”.

Khurram says even now when many young girls are being raised to be independent, “we’re not teaching our sons to respect our women… it’s either side”.

These three women, leading by example, are part of the solution.

Sa’d hopes her engineering firm, Handasiyat, will become the only engineering company in the MENA region to be staffed entirely by women. Khurram hopes her organisation will continue to grow and create a platform for all doctors out of the workforce to return and help stem the number of women dying in childbirth for want of proper medical attention. Hafeez hopes Busanti can be rolled out for, not just women in low-income areas, but all areas of society “so they can feel safe and comfortable to access (Karachi) and do other opportunities through public transport”.

Nabil Habayeb, General Electric’s President and CEO of the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, calls these women “silent warriors”.

“They go around their work without waiting for or seeking recognition and the impact of what they do is an inspiration to all of us.”

He says there is an urgent need to promote women’s participation in the work force to “drive all around social and economic growth”.

“It is well acknowledged that women, despite being half the population, are under represented in the work force.”

For his part, he says 40 per cent of his leadership team are women — and climbing.

“Hopefully by the time l leave, the men will be asking for their own network group.”

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