“When we were forced to leave our country, I never thought that a community in Lebanon would accept and treat me as an active member, the way I have been at the Kfeir Women’s Working Group,” says Hiba Kamal, an 18-year-old refugee from Syria, who travelled to Lebanon with her family five years ago fleeing instability in her own country.
Kamal is among more than 1.5 million refugees from Syria and its neighbouring countries, who are now living in Lebanon. In fact, the massive influx of refugees now accounts for 25% of the total population in the country and puts unprecedented pressure on the Lebanese economy. There is an ever-increasing demand for public services and a stiff competition for the limited resources as well as employment.
Consequently, the protracted refugee and migrant crisis has led to increased tensions between local and refugee populations, especially in the poorest areas, where there is a large presence of refugees. There is, unfortunately, a lot of insecurity apart from a greater risk of sexual and gender-based violence.
Women, both Lebanese and refugees, often suffer more discrimination due to the prevalence of prejudiced laws and cultural stereotypes. Despite the financial crisis in their family, they are either restricted to their homes or forced to find low and unstable income work available within the informal sector, in which they don’t have any rights or social protection.
To improve women’s access to employment and markets, Amel Association, a Lebanese non-governmental organisation, implemented a three-year livelihood project from 2012-15 in the south of Lebanon and the suburbs of Beirut with the support of UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality. The project has impacted over 1,000 rural and refugee women, who have learnt how to create, brand and retail high-quality handicrafts, such as embroidery and accessories, in addition to organic and agro-food products, following the highest quality and sanitation standards. By combining traditional techniques, materials and designs, the women working as part of the MENNA (which means ‘from us’ in Arabic) project create unique and marketable products under the MENNA brand.
Through their interactive sessions, where refugee and Lebanese women learnt the crafts and worked together, the programme also created spaces for dialogue and coexistence among the two groups with an idea to build social stability. “The [Lebanese] women started teaching me their traditional needle work and I was genuinely happy to share with them all the traditional practices that I had learnt from my mother and grandmother in loom work,” shares Kamal. By bringing together their own local techniques, materials and designs, the women link their cultural heritage and history with the products, making them unique and highly marketable.
“We started seeing real results of our work when some of the women started creating their own products and exhibiting them. They grew stronger, more confident and set inspiring examples for other women in the area,” reveals Safaa Al Ali, Programme Manager at the Amel Association.
The organisation has also facilitated an alliance with 13 other civil society organisations and cooperatives that are doing similar work to create the first economic network for women in Lebanon. Indeed, nowadays, more than 300 refugee and rural Lebanese women sell soaps, candles, accessories and handicrafts directly to the people from their MENNA shop in Beirut.
“I came to Lebanon as the crisis began in Syria five years ago… it was hard to find a suitable job as a refugee and I could not access the formal business sector,” shares Mona Hamid, a 51-year-old Syrian refugee living in the suburbs of Lebanon’s capital. “By joining the MENNA network at Amel, I gained skills to sell and promote my items at local businesses and also showed them at exhibitions.”
The success of the initiative prompted Amel to set up a MENNA catering service in February 2016, opening up more income-generating opportunities for the women associated with their network.
Today, the MENNA brand has brought together Lebanese and refugee women in a way that has benefited both communities. “The importance of this project is that it respects the culture and skills of refugee women and assists them in integrating into the host community. It is a model that works, not only to make women agents of their own economic empowerment in a fragile context, but also as a way that brings them together to work for a common goal, thus building social stability and sustainable peace,” notes Rana El-Houjeiri, Programme Specialist for UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality in Lebanon. The Fund is now building upon the success of this initiative by supporting similar initiatives in Lebanon and other countries in the Arab States region.