Frock stars

We meet the women in Yemen learning to sew and stand on their own two feet

The unassuming rough stone building with its pitted metal door is just like any other on the outskirts of Taiz. Step inside, however, and the muted greys and greens of rural Yemen are left behind in an instant.

One wall is covered in lengths of patterned fabrics in reds, pinks and blues, while another is home to dozens of brightly coloured girls’ dresses, hanging in wait for collection or alteration. On simple wooden tables, two veiled women run cloth expertly through new sewing machines; another is ironing a dress ready for sale. Yasmin Alsiyaghi helps a customer choose some fabric; he settles on a white girl’s dress with gauze overlay and Yasmin sees another satisfied client out of the shop. She is similarly content. “My family are proud of me,” she says, smiling. “I was frustrated sitting at home, but now I have a creative outlet and the shop is famous in our community.”

Yasmin is the manager of the Six Stars shop, which designs and tailors clothing for women and children. Alongside her work Salwa, Rania, Enas and sisters Wadha and Samah, all of whom are aged between 16 and 22 years old. The six women met on the Youth Vocational Empowerment Program (YVEP), a training scheme organised by a local non-profit. Having become close friends they decided to pool the resources provided by YVEP – a tailoring start-up toolkit – and set up a business after graduating.

It was the sisters who came up with the name: Six Stars. With their families, neighbours and local community now supporting the shop, Yasmin says their business has challenged conventional perceptions. “Before we opened they said it was impossible to have a shop founded and run by women. But we resolved to do it and take on that responsibility. I hope it will prompt other women in the region to join the next YVEP programme.”

Before joining the programme, none of the six women had a job and employment prospects were bleak. Wadha Alansi had been job-hunting for four years. Like her older sister and their father, Samah was also unemployed.

“Before YVEP I stayed at home reading,” she says. “I thank Allah this programme helped us improve our minds.”

Taiz is Yemen’s third-largest city and the majority of its 2.7 million inhabitants are dependent on agriculture, in particular coffee and vegetables, for work. Moreover Yemen’s share of female-owned businesses is among the lowest in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, at about 10 per cent according to World Bank data. And while 61 per cent of men in Yemen work for pay, currently only 12 per cent of Yemeni women under the age of 25 are in paid employment.

YVEP is just one initiative designed to readdress this balance. It is organised by Yemen Education for Employment (YEFE), a locally run not-for-profit organisation set up in Sana’a and Taiz in 2008, and funded through contributions from private sector partners and grants. Aimed at out-of-school young people who struggle to find employment because they are not sufficiently qualified, YVEP teaches participants vocational skills – such as tailoring, hairdressing or electrical repairs – through job-specific training followed by a one-month apprenticeship with local companies.

YVEP also provides training in important business skills: each trainee spends 30 hours on the Workplace Success programme learning soft skills like interpersonal communication, leadership, team work, professional ethics and time management.

According to Labib Shaher, Taiz branch director for YEFE, 224 young people in the city have so far benefited from the programme, including 78 women. Meanwhile, five private companies and one NGO have signed up to hire YVEP graduates.

“The best things I learned were how to make better decisions, take responsibility and have courage

Across the rest of the country, YEFE has trained more than 890 Yemeni graduates. YEFE is also part of a broader Education for Employment (EFE) network – active in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine and Tunisia – that aims to get 85 per cent of its graduates work by encouraging employers to pre-commit job places. More than 2,400 young people across the MENA region graduated from EFE training programmes in 2011, and the group predicts it will have reached more than 22,400 young people in total by the end of the year.

The programme’s impact on the young women of Six Stars has been dramatic. Like all her colleagues, Wadha says she discovered her self-confidence as a result of the training – a confidence that encouraged them to run a business together.

“The best things I learned from YVEP were how to make better decisions, take responsibility and have courage,” agrees Yasmin. Out of work just six months ago, each has acquired a skill, an income and hope.

“Our friends and neighbours say we have a bright future,” says Salwa, the eldest of the Stars. Initially, Salwa’s family had been against her joining YVEP, but relented after being assured of its positive impact.

Today, Salwa uses the income from the business to help her older brother support the family. Wadha’s family, likewise, never imagined that a business would emerge from her engagement with YVEP.

“My goal is to be a famous businesswoman in Yemen and employ other girls and mothers who need work,” she says now. “I think that most Yemeni women are creative, but there is no one to discover their skills. “Seeing our business, the people from our neighbourhood now say they consider women equal to a hundred men, because we were able to do something even men could not.”