“I want to provide more employment opportunities for struggling women and unemployed youth” stated forty-nine year old Faiza Al –Shgair who until June last year (2014) was a single mother struggling to raise her daughters in Tripoli.
Faiza is a graduate of the USAID Libya Women Economic Empowerment (LWEE) project and the winner of one of the matching grants awards. She won USD $13,000 to work on getting her catering business, ‘Almawasm’, running.
Since its implementation by the Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) in April 2013, the LWEE project, which is a Small-Medium Enterprise (SME) development program has seen 200 women pass through its doors in the Libyan cities of Tripoli, Benghazi and Zawia. Of the participants in the program, 59% were single, while 49% had a bachelor degree when they joined the programme. By the time the last group finished the training in May 2014, 77% of the graduates had some kind of business plan or idea.
Faiza has two Bachelor of Art degrees (Law and Arabic language) under her belt in addition to a diploma in Criminal Studies. She is also pursuing postgraduate studies. Trying to balance motherhood, responsibilities and ambition has never been easy in a culturally conservative society that is a bit unforgiving to divorcees. So she had resorted to working as a teacher as it also gives her more flexible hours. Unfortunately, she can’t remember the last time she was able to easily make ends meet. In order to avoid borrowing money, she is sometimes forced to prepare and sell meals for special occasions.
Like Faiza, all these women of varied ages, ranging from 18 to over 65, were offered essential business skills training and were supported in moving from an initial theoretical business idea to putting it on paper. In addition to information about the Libyan market, the women also received workshops, mentoring and networking opportunities. In total they received 80 hours of training over a 20-day period including, topics such as finance, administration, marketing and leadership.
In Libya, business support networks for entrepreneurs in general and for women entrepreneurs in particular are weak. Although highly educated, women encounter challenges related to access to credit and markets compared to their male counterparts. This is especially relevant at a time of heightened economic dislocation in the country due to 3 years of post-conflict transition. A country where the educational system and the prevailing culture do not encourage innovation and risk taking nor necessarily deliver the skills necessary to match market demands precisely because of the infamous 42 years of one of the harshest dictatorship on earth which ended in 2011.
If you have been following the news, you would know that this transitional period in Libya has been plagued by unfortunate periods of setbacks such as fuel shortages, power outages, internet cuts, militia strife, and a plethora of security issues culminating in last year’s hostilities in Tripoli which destroyed the Libyan commercial airline fleet, levelled the international airport, created thousands of displaced families and the highest rate of death since the end of the revolution that removed Gaddafi.
Throughout it all women have worked hard to finish their homework, polish their dreams and not miss the opportunity they have been given and we are very proud of them. The project hopes to give Libyan business women the chance to grow and thrive during Libya’s transition period and help create a much-needed economy that is diversified away from the dominant oil sector.
Seeing this overwhelming response from women such as Faiza inspired the LWEE team to continue to work relentlessly while all foreign organisations and diplomatic missions and companies pulled out of Libya in the summer of 2014, evacuating their staff and families. The LWEE team continued to work while major areas in the city of Tripoli were shut down due to heavy shelling; when the oil fuel depots were burning and caused breathing problems; when the fuel lines where five days long and the electricity was off for 20 hours per day. Through it all, we went on working – even after a Grad rocket damaged our building!
Why did the LWEE go on? To show support to the courageous Libyan women and to show them we are not letting them down in the middle of the road. Also because we believe wholeheartedly in the goals of the project, namely that women have an important role in the economy and that this is a step towards a vibrant economy. One where the private sector will have strong and knowledgeable players that can rise above instability and strife – something that will be a critical element of a healthy Libyan future.