July 28, 2021

Jordanian women in search of work and financial autonomy

At the end of the production line, Inas checks the packaging of bottles of detergent products. Neither her accounting degree nor her previous professional experiences intended her to work as a supervisor in a factory. But this 34-year-old Jordanian has no regrets: she says she is thriving and intends to climb the ranks within the factory where she has been employed since spring 2020. For her, as for Nivine and Fatima, personal changes or the severe economic crisis in Jordan, requiring to multiply the income of a house, made them take the plunge: join trades uncommon for women, but trades which ensure them, say these thirty-something, rights and stability. “I can support my family, ensure our dignity”, launches Inas Shenawi, in the premises of the Combaj factory, in the suburbs of Amman. Single, her family support role has become essential because her father is no longer able to work after a heart attack. “I am financially independent”, welcomes Nivine Madi, a 35-year-old Jordanian mother of two. She works in the butcher’s department of the Kareem supermarket, in Zarka, not far from the capital. She is also the first female butcher in the country.

But the monthly salary of these women remains low: above the minimum income (260 Jordanian dinars, or 307 euros), but below the average salary (550 euros, what a teacher earns). However, they consider their work beneficial. “I have more confidence in myself today”, says Fatima Khashqa, a Syrian refugee, a worker at Safe Techno Plast, a plastic utensil factory located in an industrial area in greater Amman. But pushing the doors of industries which, unlike those in the textile or food industries, do not have a tradition of employing women, was not easy. Younger, 22-year-old Jordanian Dua’a and 20-year-old Syrian Amal remember the shock when they discovered “A male universe” in the electrical appliance factory, Refco, where they were hired. Since then, they have gotten used to it, even if these jobs are not socially valued.

The strength of traditions

The subject of countless studies, the low employment of women in Jordan is notorious: the percentage of working women does not reach 15%, a figure lower than in neighboring Arab countries. And this is not for lack of education. Girls’ education has continued to grow, and female students outnumber their male peers on university benches. When women succeed in entering the labor market, the majority take up skilled jobs. Their presence is also considerable in education or health. Renowned women lawyers have even been pioneers in the fight for social justice. But the traditions are strong. The tenacious association between the woman and the household (57% of Jordanians questioned in 2014 believed that the children of an active woman suffered from this situation), various obstacles (such as access to reliable and secure transport) or discrimination slowed down integration of women. Even despite the struggle waged for years by Jordanian feminists.

And the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the economic crisis in Jordan. Unemployment reaches 25%, and it is twice as high among young people. Because, for more than a decade, the labor market has not been able to create enough new jobs, various recent national strategies have put forward the vocational sector as access to employment. Although the subject is debated, economists see it as a tool to reduce unemployment. This strategy also attracts the attention of international or Western donors, who also focus on the employment of women, as well as on the integration of Syrian refugees – for political reasons in order to avoid emigration to Europe.

Nivine Madi, 36, has chosen to work as a butcher.  Amman, Jordan, June 28, 2021.

It is through professional training delivered by the Business Development Center (BDC), a Jordanian service organization, and funded by the French Development Agency (AFD), that Nivine, Inas or Fatima have integrated their current job. Women represent more than 40% of those trained so far through the Tanmyeh initiative (“development”, in Arabic), which is part of a larger program of financing development projects in countries affected by the crisis. Syrian (Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey). Those, the majority, who have found a job after their training benefit from a contract and social security. They are also regularly monitored by the BDC team. The challenge is to make these jobs sustainable.

But one of the obstacles to employment for women is the “culture of shame”. This expression often comes up in the words of Nivine or Inas and they regret it. In their words, it is about everything at the same time: the stigma associated with manual trades and the stigma cast on women who practice “unconventional” trades. “By learning as a butcher, Nivine had to face the harsh remarks of customers who found that a woman was out of place behind this counter, even who refused to have her serve them. “It was very hard at the start. “ She made one “Challenge” to meet, until they gain their trust. The same goes for Inas, who often hears those around her saying: “You studied, you’re a woman, how can you work in a factory?” But, as much as the words hurt her, she takes stock of her years of employment, including her months in the factory, and she feels useful. Proud to have been able to financially help her sisters to go to university.

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Social norms

Freeing oneself from social norms is also a personal struggle. ” Because’[elle est] bride “, Fatima, originally from a rural region of Syria and who studied up to high school, was initially more embarrassed by the diversity in the factory she was to join: a cultural barrier for women – Syrian or Jordanian women – who come from a conservative background, worried about their reputation or fearful of harassment. She says she finally feels ” safe “ today. It must be said that his employer, Abdel Hafez Mouaffaq, an industrialist from Aleppo, who heads the company Safe Techno Plast, has chosen to separate the spaces between men and women as much as possible in order to prevent the reluctance of these people. last. “We only mix places with the male workers we know, not with those passing through. In Syria, I was already employing women. I think they have to work to take care of their children. In addition, women are more stable. Here, they represent a third of the employees. ” Other bosses proceed differently: at Refco, which manufactures electrical appliances in an industrial zone near Amman, more than 60% of employees are now women on the production lines, and the workshops are mixed.

Arabia Nimer, 22, works in filling and packaging at the Safe Technology factory.  She does this job so that she can study law - she works one semester and studies the other.  Amman, Jordan, June 28, 2021.

And to help these women, some employers are looking for solutions. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr. Mouaffaq sought to identify a place to open a daycare, perhaps by sharing it with other nearby factories. An amendment to the labor law broadened the conditions that force companies to provide this service, a measure deemed essential by promoters of female employment. Another revision, equal pay between men and women is now enshrined in law. But it will still have to be applied.

The crisis that strikes does not prevent us from projecting ourselves. Nivine is determined to open her own butcher shop, employing only women. Inas aspires to become a commercial attaché in the company where she works, with a better salary. Fatima, she would like to follow other trainings. She already considers her rapid progress within the factory a personal achievement.

This article is produced as part of a partnership with the French Development Agency