Assistance that once indirectly helped girls and women now targets them
Washington -- "If you bring potable, clean water to a village, it frees up girls' time -- it is they who fetch and carry water. They can go to school," says Isobel Coleman, of the Council on Foreign Relations.
U.S. aid to the Middle East over several decades has helped women. But during the 1950s and 1960s, most U.S. aid to Middle Eastern countries focused on improving general health -- often in the form of providing access to clean water supplies and immunizations against disease. Those initiatives were not designed to disproportionately affect women's lives, but they did.
During the 1970s, U.S. aid shifted to an emphasis on improving education. By the 1980s, the focus shifted to getting girls as well as boys educated. According to a report published in April 2005 by UNICEF, there have been "huge advances in girls' education in the Middle East/North Africa in recent decades."
UNICEF says that in 2005 there were 94 girls in primary school for every 100 boys in the region and 80 girls in secondary school for every 100 boys. Coleman notes that the impact of U.S. aid on girls' enrollment especially can be seen in Egypt, which since 1979 has been one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid. (In Egypt, there are 90 girls in secondary school for every 100 boys, according to UNICEF.)
By the 1990s, U.S. programs in the Middle East more proactively sought to address women's success in civil societies. Aid increasingly was directed to women-led organizations that focus on women's status.
Most U.S. aid to women in Middle Eastern countries is administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), but money and time comes from other government agencies too, as well as from U.S. corporations and nonprofit organizations.
Today, USAID supports Morocco's government in teaching rural women to read and write in standard Arabic while they also learn about new legal rights for Moroccan women. Also in Morocco, USAID, in partnership with the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), has awarded grants of hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the Comité de Soutien á la Scolarisation des Filles (Girls' Educational Support Committee) to build dormitories so that rural Moroccan girls, who live far from schools, can attend.
In Afghanistan, USAID is awarding $20 million to support literacy programs. It already helps midwives and health workers learn to read.
Although Jordan boasts one of the highest female literacy rates in the world, only 12 percent of Jordanian women work for pay. But USAID, in partnership with several Jordanian government ministries and Cisco Systems Inc., a California-based technology company, has trained nearly 2,000 women in computer skills and organized job fairs to help them find work.
In Yemen, USAID has aided the development of teaching tools for primary education and the creation of a mobile repair team to support school maintenance in many locations. MEPI has helped develop literacy associations that help women farmers and has worked with local communities to develop savings and loan clubs.
Today, more U.S. aid reaches beyond education to help women develop professionally. Since 2004, MEPI has brought 120 young businesswomen and women lawyers to study for several weeks at the University of Pennsylvania before working in fellowships at top-tier law firms and Fortune 500 companies in the United States. MEPI also helps women who are interested in activism and politics to hone their skills and become more involved in their communities to make changes they want to make.
The State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) in 2007 ran at least four programs for businesswomen from the Middle East. They included an International Visitor Leadership Program that brought women leaders from the Middle East to confer with their counterparts in communities in the United States and an International Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership, in its second year, which brought women from the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Egypt to work with mentors at U.S. companies.
Also in 2007, several female U.S. executives participated in a summit in Jordan with businesswomen from throughout the Middle East. (See related article.)
MEPI supports a project bringing together women's nongovernmental organizations with representatives of private-sector companies in the Middle East to talk about ways that together they can tackle issues, such as domestic violence, that affect women's lives.
Shireen Zaman of Vital Voices, the implementer of the project, said, "The private sector in the Middle East has a great tradition of philanthropy." Her project's efforts are helping companies think about ways of giving that go beyond "one-time gifts" and can be "more strategic and more sustained," often by partnering with a women-led nongovernmental organization, she said.
She said companies can learn that such partnerships help them increase brand loyalty, improve their reputations, make their employees happy and enhance the roles of women in their communities. Recently, representatives from companies and the nonprofit sector from both the United States and Jordan came to a conference at the Dead Sea to talk about why companies get involved in social issues.
Liz Claiborne Inc., a U.S. women's clothing maker, was one of the companies represented. It boasts a 15-year program to fight domestic violence and has developed workplace-safety policies to help victims and prevent abuse, as well as a number of efforts to educate teens about dating violence.
For additional information on U.S. outreach to the region, see Middle East Partnership Initiative.
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
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