This department is focused on strengthening the rights and economic opportunities of women throughout Lebanon. The main programs in this department have focused on creating jobs for women in rural areas in the domain of specialty food production. Many activities have been implemented in connection with the Entrepreneurship, Vocational Training, and Child Rights Departments. The food production has been coordinated by the YMCA under the Atayeb al Rif Cooperative, which is responsible for orders and marketing - both nationally and internationally - for over 40 women's cooperatives around the country.
Funded by USAID from 2002 to 2005, in collaboration with the YMCA of USA, this project directly benefitted 2,500 women and 36 rural and underdeveloped communities in Lebanon. The program created income generating opportunities for rural women through the initiation of food processing centers and production farms. Details include:
In the beginning, many of the women came into the program as insecure, passive applicants or prospective participants. By the time they were in a position to take control of their individual cooperative, and after their intensive training, they were ready and eager to begin producing and running their cooperatives and managing their business. Most have not looked back.
The YMCA opted not to intervene in the selection, election or formation process of the cooperative bodies. The women were encouraged to express their opinions, put into place democratic procedures on their own and abide by cooperative regulations as established by the Lebanese government. The women met and formed their individual cooperatives, their governing bodies and together determined their respective centers’ specialties. Once the cooperatives or farms were up and running, the women mobilized themselves in order to begin selling their products.
While Atayeb Al Rif oversees the sales and marketing overall, the women also know that the more they sell on their cooperative level, the more income they can all collectively earn. That incentive alone keeps the women working to identify other opportunities within their village and region to establish a local customer base. They not only work diligently within their communities to sell their products, they are also always looking for other ways to expand on their cooperatives’ potential.
Several of the cooperatives have come up with other ways to sell their excess inventory by setting up 41 small catering services during the “off-peak” seasons. The women may have started out as “passive participants” and observers, but today they are at the heart of Atayeb Al Rif and their individual cooperatives’ success. Several have become trainers of other women and some have even become active participants in training outside Lebanon – as was the case when the YMCA was approached to implement the SMART program in Yemen. Women trainees were brought along to train the Yemeni women in the program.
Atayeb Al Rif and the production cooperatives and farms have captivated the media. One reason may be that the SMART program was granted the equivalent of 40% of the total Ministry of Agriculture’s budget, in addition to its high profile and unique stature as a women-only focused development program. To date, over 100 articles in 10 local newspapers have covered the women run cooperatives, numerous TV programs and radio interviews on multiple stations have also covered the women.
The media coverage has served to promote and support the women-run cooperatives idea. The coverage has also served to paint a positive picture of USAID and its financial contributions on the local level, both working with the YMCA to implement a project of this scale and in contributing to rural women’s economic independence.
The media coverage has made celebrities of the women in their village. Prior to the SMART program, most of the women had never left their villages. But since the start of their involvement in the program, many have made several public appearances – some in front of cameras, others as class trainers and many of them before the consumers without giving their public appearance a second thought.
Most importantly, the men’s perceptions are also changing. The thought that their wives are working outside the home is no longer a contentious issue. In most cases, the additional income has raised the household’s standard of living, easing some of the stresses of everyday living which in turn eases the men’s response to their spouses’ work. Lastly, the media has also succeeded in promoting natural products and a return to “grandmother’s kitchen”.