Despite hurdles, Arab women are creating their own opportunities

Abeer Abu Ghaith is a 2015 Delegate Speaker in the Education Plenary Session. Abeer is from Palestine and Founded MENA Alliances Inc.

Abeer Abu Ghaith speaks about refugee camps, unemployment, and poverty in Palestine

I grew up knowing nothing but war and conflict. I lived in a refugee camp in Jordan for 12 years, and from a very young age, experienced how a lack of resources impacts education. After leaving Jordan, I moved to a small village in my home country of Palestine. All over Palestine there are checkpoints that restrict us from moving around freely. In order to leave the West Bank or Gaza, you must cross military checkpoints. These checkpoints and roadblocks may be closed without warning at any time, and without explanation, we can also be denied entry, questioned and kept waiting for hours. It can be a humiliating process and often causes us to be delayed or to not even arrive at our workplace and schools. I live in a small town outside the city of Hebron and I am forced to use detours to reach my office in the city.  It takes me an average of two hours to reach my work, located just 15 km from my home.  

Restriction of movement is the key cause of the high rates of unemployment and poverty in Palestine, especially among women. Our society has become increasingly protective of women- this limits them because their families are afraid to allow them to travel to other cities and towns. The majority of jobs are in the larger cities and it is not an option for a woman to live alone or be out late at night. As a result, the rate of female participation in the Palestinian workforce is one of the lowest in the world. This is despite the fact that Palestinian women make up the majority of students in many universities in Palestine.

Growing up, I was often told that "a woman’s future is in her husband’s kitchen". However, I believe I can help change the world in my own way. This belief motivated me to finish school with high grades and to earn a bachelor’s degree in Computer Systems Engineering with Honours. Despite this, I was unemployed for almost two years after graduation. During this time, I continued to learn, taking online courses in my technical area to improve my skills, which enabled me to get my first job as a teacher of computer networking at a university. My first class was entirely male and all but two people walked out when they saw that I was a woman. But I did not give up and I taught those two people! By the third class, almost all of the students returned because I had proven myself to be a good teacher.

In 2013, I decided to establish my own business to give women and youth the opportunity to work and to equip them with the skills that they need to work online. I started out with no money, working from home with just my laptop and the Internet, and single-handedly, developed an online business model that provides training and work opportunities within fields such as translation, online marketing, graphic design, data entry, software development and programming.

It is a way around the occupation of Palestine with no roadblocks or checkpoints to go through. The online model provides women and youth in Palestine with the experience they need to enter the workforce, and improves their skills by providing them with training and feedback in order to submit the best possible work to clients.

In less than three years, this model has proven successful. We had several women and youth continuing to work in Gaza during the latest incursion with only five hours of electricity a day. More than 2,000 women and youth in the West Bank and Gaza have been trained to use the tools that enable them to work online. The business enabled 370 projects to be completed by 300 professionals, most of them women. As well as being profitable, we also reached global markets in the UK, US, Australia and the Gulf.

After improving the model in Palestine, I wanted to help more women and young people to become aware of job opportunities around world and I started a new company, MENA Alliances, which encompasses the entirety of the Middle East and North Africa.

In the Middle East, high unemployment is considered one of the biggest challenges, especially among women.  Arab women are more educated than ever before, but their participation in the workforce is about half the world average.  This is because many women in the Arab World live in societies with conservative attitudes, restrictions on their mobility and limitations to their career choices. As a result, many choose to marry and stay at home to raise children.

My dream is to create a platform that generates more than one million jobs for women in the MENA over the next five years. In order to do this, I need help from Governments, NGOs and businesses to improve the connectivity in MENA and equip women and youth with the tools, skills and knowledge necessary for online work. Working online is an option that allows women not to have to choose between work and marriage. Working online gives them a chance to experience both.