FEATURE-COVID and war push Yemen’s businesswomen to break taboos

* Yemeni women-led businesses ramp up production of masks and oxygen

* Years of war erode the traditional gender divide in business

* From bakeries to education, women provide vital services

TAIZ, Yemen, Jan 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Short of masks and short of protective gowns, Yemen’s overstretched medical staff have begun dying of COVID-19. Nadia Dhrah – herself a doctor – was appalled, so she decided to do what she could to help.

Dhrah, who started a small business manufacturing surgical masks and garments in 2019, believed his business could meet demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) faster than expensive imports amid worsening the monetary crisis after years of war.

“Doctors were dying. Face masks were suddenly in high demand. We sprang into action and started producing as much (PPE) as we could,” Dhrah, in his 40s, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from his factory in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital.

Despite the challenges of being an entrepreneur in Yemen, Dhrah is among a growing number of Yemeni women challenging conservative notions about gender roles to open new businesses.

Her factory, which now employs 20 full-time people, is one of dozens of women-owned businesses that have adapted to the coronavirus outbreak and, in some cases, thrived during a seven-year conflict.

Yemen is embroiled in a war between a Saudi-led military coalition and the Iran-aligned Houthi group.

The fighting has crippled its economy and health system, and triggered the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis with millions facing starvation and diseases such as cholera, diphtheria and malaria.

COVID-19 has compounded problems in Yemen, the poorest Arab country where less than 1% of the population has been vaccinated.

But with state organs collapsing, women entrepreneurs across the country have stepped in to provide crucial services – running bakeries, running language and training institutes, and establishing women-only cafes here.

“Society has not believed that women can run businesses and has long underestimated their abilities,” said Faizah Alsulimani, director of partnerships at SMEPS, a national agency supporting entrepreneurship and business development. .

“These exceptional challenges have seen women excel in business and change attitudes, inspiring other women,” she said.

‘I AM PROUD’

The war has upended the traditional roles of men and women, as women business owners fill the void left by tens of thousands of men who have lost their wages or gone to the front lines to fight.

Many Yemeni women are employed, but cultural expectations hold that men are the primary breadwinners.

COVID-19 has also created a new demand for products that women-led businesses are responding to.

Safia Omar, who runs an oxygen plant in southern Yemen, has been inundated with requests from hospitals for oxygen canisters to fight respiratory ailments caused by the disease.

With shortages leaving desperate families of patients often paying exorbitant prices for imported cylinders, Omar has sought to ensure his oxygen is affordable.

The factory she runs with her sons has tripled production since the start of the pandemic and now produces more than 100 bottles a day, selling them to hospitals and quarantine centres.

“The demand during the pandemic has helped me grow my business. Some companies have gone bankrupt, but mine is growing every day. I’m proud,” she said over the phone.

Women entrepreneurs have struggled to get their businesses started due to a lack of access to finance.

Banks usually require commercial collateral from borrowers in order to provide loans, which many women find difficult to obtain.

A donation from SMEPS has helped Dhrah grow her business from a simple sewing machine to a team of workers producing more than 1,000 face masks and 100-150 protective suits a day.

Other female entrepreneurs say skills training is key.

While working as a teacher, Muna Mohammed noticed the desire of the women and girls around her to learn skills that would enable them to generate income.

When the Ministry of Education stopped paying her salaries and the salaries of thousands of other teachers in 2016, she used her savings to open a private institute teaching women computer skills, sewing and first aid.

“A lot of women have already started using these skills to find jobs,” she said.

Mohammed wants women in Yemen to start their own businesses so they can support their families and meet the needs of female customers.

“I predict that many women will start their own businesses in the future because women have already broken taboos and entered the market with their own projects.” (Reporting by Amal Mamoon; Editing by Tom Finn and Helen Popper; (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world struggling to live freely or fairly)

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