Glittering party dresses, bags with neat stitching along the zippers, cowboy pants and children’s clothes fill the walls.
The room is full of a ta-ta-ta-ta-ta sound from sewing machines putting stitches in the fabrics.
The light in the classroom is bright, so the women can see the thin thread that has to be threaded repeatedly through the narrow eye of the sewing machine needle.
“We have just started, so today we are sewing this long white dress that we can use to pray in. It is simple, but there are still some details around the collar that are a little difficult,” says Sibil Saleh, who lives in Tripoli in northern Lebanon.
Part of the 15 women who are learning to sew around her come from the Syrian refugee camps in the Tripoli region. Others, like Sibil Saleh, are Lebanese who live in the local communities. Some of the women are married, others are divorced, and some are widows.
But what they all have in common is that they have experienced gender-based violence or are at risk of it. Most often from their husband, but in some cases from a brother, a father or others in their community.
At the same time, they are all here to learn a new craft.
“I am divorced and live with my brother and my three children. We survive only because he provides for us,” says Nidaa Alaychi.
She got married while she was in her second year at university and therefore never finished her education. Today she has no income of her own.
“I hope this can be my way to earn my own money; that I can be able to open my own small business and become financially independent so that I can help my children and myself,” she says.
KVINFOS INTERNATIONAL WORK
takes place in countries with a pronounced lack of gender equality and where work with gender and equality provides an important and effective focus area for creating a more free and equal society.
We work in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon in the so-called MENA region and in Ukraine and Georgia.
The work takes differnt forms, ranging from running of women’s shelters in collaboration with partners, to advocating for law reform and challenging norms and traditions that limit people according to stereotypical gender norms.
Read more here.
New skills provides real choices
Since 2021, KVINFO and ABAAD, Resource Centre for Gender Equality have worked against gender-based violence in the most vulnerable regions of Lebanon with support from the Novo Nordisk Foundation.
The project supports both the necessary, acute services – where women exposed to gender based violence can receive protection and treatment at ABAAD’s midway houses – and efforts that will support them in the longer term. Like, for example, upskilling classes like the sewing lessons.
“Most women here are dependent on their husbands. Today, many women stay with the aggressor because they have no other options. They cannot support themselves, they have no basic education, and they are often illiterate. When they learn new skills they have more choices and can make their own decisions,” says Manar Ajami, teacher at the upskilling class.
In addition to sewing, the women can also take upskilling classes in topics like baking, health care, metalwork and cooking.
Afterwards, they get a training diploma that is recognized in the rest of the country, so they can look for work or try to start their own small business or cooperative.
“I can see a path for myself”
Amongst the sewing machines, the conversation is lively, and a few of the women laugh at the mistakes they make along the way. Today’s class is almost over, and several people are starting to take stock of the projects.
“Has it become a bit wrinkled at the edges?” Sibil Saleh asks, laughing, as she tries on her finished white dress.
Before they started the sewing classes, many of the women followed each other through some of the psychosocial activities that ABAAD does alongside the upskilling activities at the ‘Women and Girls Safe Spaces’ in Tripoli.
It is a long series of workshops that begin with teaching about gender-based violence, self-respect, self-realization and identification of one’s feelings. Later the workshops build on top of that with discussions about social conformity, financial independence, health and legal rights.
“Many of the women in this group have experiences gender-based violence and it has meant a lot that we are a group. We have gotten better together,” says Sibil Saleh. Nidaa Alaychi adds:
“I have gotten to know many women here; not only Lebanese but also Syrian and we have become friends. Some of us drink coffee at each other’s houses, we go out together, and I hope that also means that we can support each other in the future.”
For Nidaa Alaychi, it has long been difficult to see how she could give her children and herself a more stable and secure life. As a divorced woman in her part of Lebanon, the opportunities are not that many, she says.
Until now she has found it difficult to believe that things would get better but she finds that the upskilling and the discussions with the others about mental health have made her stronger.
“I have felt better and have become more aware of what I want and how I can cope with these things. I feel more independent. I have been given a path in life, and I can see myself walking that path for the first time in a long time,” she says.
ABAAD and KVINFO
Since the summer of 2021, KVINFO has been working together with ABAAD against gender-based violence in Lebanon.
The partnership has helped to expand ABAAD’s work in supporting and offering emergency protection and socio-economic assistance to girls and women who have experienced or are at risk of gender-based violence. At the same time, the partnership has focused on activities that strengthen the women’s understanding of gender-based violence and their opportunities to earn a living in the longer term. Including upgrading workshops.
The project targets Syrian refugees and their vulnerable host communities in two of the most vulnerable districts – Tripoli in northern Lebanon and Bekaa in eastern Lebanon. According to the UN Development Program and VASyR (The Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon), the refugee and host communities in Qobbeh in Tripoli and Qab Elias in Bekaa are some of the most vulnerable.
ABAAD – Resource Center for Gender Equality – is a UN ECOSOC accredited organisation that aims to achieve gender equality as an essential condition for sustainable social and economic development in the MENA region.
The collaboration between KVINFO and ABAAD is financed by Novo Nordisk Foundation with a grant that expires at the end of 2022.
Crises make women more vulnerable
The aim of ABAAD’s work is that the women who complete the program are more empowered and better equipped to make their own decisions.
“What we hope to achieve as a minimum is that they have different alternatives, we see them more empowered and equipped to face the reality and take decisions that will help them increase their wellbeing. Maybe that means that there is room to fix the relationship they are in, if they are married, maybe they chose to go in another direction, that is their decision – but they have a real choice, says area manager of ABAAD North, Abdallah El Hassan.
As he puts it, unfortunately the work is only becoming more necessary at the moment.
In Lebanon, as well as in most other countries, the Covid-19 lockdowns caused domestic violence to increase.
At the same time, the deep economic crisis in the country has contributed to a rise in gender-based violence. Since 2019, sky-high inflation rates have plunged large parts of the Lebanese population into poverty.
Even basic food has become far more expensive than just a few years ago. 91 percent of Syrian families and 55 percent of Lebanese now live below the poverty line, according to the United Nations.
“The economic crisis means that we are seeing both a large increase in the amount of gender-based violence, but also new types. For example, a large increase in cases where the men deny the women money or prevent them from going out. It simply deprives them of basic needs and freedoms,” says Abdallah El Hassan.
Need for labor
Of course, the economic crisis has not made it easier to go out and open your own business. But there are sectors which still need labour, says teacher Manar Ajami.
“The upskilling workshops in the project have been selected after an analysis in the local communities of which crafts are needed right now.”
After the technical training in, for example, sewing, training in sales and finance follows. In this way, the women also learn about the production costs and how they can price their products and make a sales plan.
“It is our experience that they can use what they learn. Recently there was someone here from the course who contacted an organization afterwards, where she started working repairing clothes. We also see that a number of women from the former team start small businesses that they run from home, where they repair or sew new things,” says Manar Ajami.
Nidaa Alychi hopes that she will be one of those who can make a living from sewing in the future.
She starts to pack her things as she looks around the displays of the previous teams’ creations on the walls. A mannequin next to her seat wears a beautiful brown evening dress, and she runs her fingers down the sequined edge of the open back.
“I still have a lot to learn, but I hope that I will learn how to sew dresses. Then I want to sew and repair dresses for my customers in the future,” she says.