Women fight unemployment and shake gender stereotypes through painting

YEEP - Women Supports
Women Painters do not only fight unemployment, they also challenge gender stereotypes Photo: YEEP

By Kawkab Althaibani

At the far corner of the rigid walls of the 7 of July Girls School, 17 young women with blue jackets painting diligently these walls. Young women are engaged in a two-months painting activity and they are paid on a daily basis as part of a new approach called “3x6””, launched by the GoY through its Youth Economic Empowerment Project with support from UNDP and the Government of Japan, which aims to create sustainable employment.

 “We enjoy our work. We really like painting,” says one of the girls.


  • Four out of five women from the consulted groups thought their living conditions had deteriorated dramatically after the uprising. (Oxfam)
  • Yemen is rated the lowest (130) in the Annual Gender Gap Report.

In Yemen, as in many Arab countries, women and men are usually separated and contact is very formal. Painting inside any household is not an easy process as the male painter has to be escorted at all times by another male from the family. It is therefore even more unusual to see women painting, an activity which is not culturally considered as women profession. Jobs for women are usually restricted to gynecology and teaching in girls’ schools.

The project targets young men and women to support them with a profession and sufficient income to start a new business. The project envisions the economic empowerment as an indivisible part of the economic recovery of the country’s current transition.

The young women are glad to have a daily income as it makes a huge difference in their lives. The short-term impact of 2011 has affected the livelihoods of all Yemenis with women being affected hardest. The latest report of Oxfam International “Still Waiting for Change: Making the political transition work for women in Yemen,”  found that four out of five women from the consulted groups thought their living conditions had deteriorated dramatically after the uprising.

Yemeni women do not only face poor living conditions. Yemen is rated the lowest (130) in the Annual Gender Gap Report which measures the disparities between men and women for many critical areas, one of which being economic participation and opportunity. Yemeni women have an extra burden to carry when it comes to earning a living. 

However, some social norms may sometimes be used to the advantage of young women. “I told some of my colleagues that they would be comfortable if a woman paints their houses and would not think to take a day off as an escort in case a man comes,” said Abbas al-Falah, the painting trainer who has been working for 22 years in this field.

Another two young students from the schools concurred. They said that they could rent cheap houses, which are mostly unpainted, as women were not allowed to hire male painters. “My mother told us she wished we could paint,” they say with sorrow. “But this was only a wish and when we saw those women paint; it was the first time to see something like this. Now, we think we can learn how to paint,” they both said with enthusiasm.

The school was at first cautious and very skeptical of their ability to paint these walls. “We were surprised to see all of these beautifully painted walls,” said a young student.

One of the participants is 18-year-old and divorced. “I am happy to learn this new skill so I can take care of my 3-year-old daughter,” she stresses. She was forced into marriage when she was only 14 and divorced four years later. The bad economic conditions of her family pushed her to work to support her child.

Obviously, there were many suspicious and discontented opinions against those women painters. “I do not think women can do this job, it is for men, they are too delicate,” argues one of the teachers. Also, some students were unhappy with what they took as a step against traditions. One of the participants herself admits that she will not take this as a profession but will use the skill for her house and her family.

The sight of women painting is not common one and regardless of whether they will be able to prove themselves in this profession or not, they have already succeeded in breaking a conservative stereotype and promoting a new approach. “It was hard to convince people by just talking, when they see them, it is different,” says Shafiah al-Siraji, the principal of the school.

The sexist suspicious attitude towards women’s capacities only served to spark a stronger feminist attitude.  Some women believe they can perform any work just as well as men. “Why not, if I am not doing something wrong,” says Intisar, a 24-year-old painter. She plans to take painting as a profession anywhere without imposing any limits to herself. “I will not stand in the street marketing myself but will do it in more suitable way,” she adds. She believes women have the potential to upgrade this profession. Intisar is a strong feminist who studies geology because there are so few women in this department. She constantly aspires to change the common perceptions towards “men-only-jobs.”

“In geology, many female graduates are now in high demand and I am sure it will be the same with painting,” she says confidently. Although some women still doubt the idea of women taking up painting as a source of living, there are others who think they will make it. “I know they will find work, especially now that they have proven themselves in the school,” says al-Siraji.

“Women as painters” is a new challenge implemented in Sana’a by the Youth Economic Empowerment Project (YEEP) in partnership with For All Foundation. “It is the first time people see women painting walls to earn a living,” says al-Siraji, “but it supports my arguments with many people that women can adapt to any situation. Actions speak louder than words.”

Along with painting, the young women and men all alike receive regular basis business and life skills training to create ideas for their future business projects.  During the current income-generating activity, third of their income is saved into a saving account.  In phase 2 of the project, the project triples the savings through a grant for feasible business ideas and provides technical support and mentorship to the newly created micro-businesses.

Some of those women painters already identified projects and they are consulting with their trainers to make them viable to market needs.

One of them will open a library and stationary small shop in her remote neighborhood with some daily items. Another one, Intisar, plans to open a French fries shop nearby a community park where there are no other similar shops. Learning painting is still very useful to them on personal and professional level. Some of them say that if they do not work outside, they will utilize it within the family sphere. “When I have my own project, I will not drop painting; it is a good source of living. I acquired a skill, why should I waste it,” says Intisar.

The “3x6 Approach” been successfully implemented by UNDP in post-conflict Burundi with support from the Japanese Government. YEEP is now implementing this new approach in Yemen to contribute to conflict prevention by addressing demands by youth for immediate and sustainable employment through implementation of three main components: inclusiveness, ownership and sustainability.

All of the young women participated with the aim of improving their living conditions through work to secure a sustainable income.

Thanks to these young woman's determination, a new understanding and a momentum seems to have developed. “In the beginning we just laughed “ha, they think they can work like men” but then we saw the beautiful work they do,” admitted one of the students, “really, I now believe that there is no difference between men and women.”

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