Women on the G20 promise: Phoebe Rison, programme manager for Christian Aid’s work in the Middle East

As part of getting more women’s voices out there in response to the G20’s promise to get 100 million more women into work by 2025, I spoke to Phoebe Rison, programme manager for Christian Aid’s work in the Middle East.

She is positive about the G20’s promise, but believes it is important to look at what women need, and explains the importance of making sure the shift goes hand in hand with other changes to society.

“Some of the women that I’ve spoken to in my work, in for example the Palestinian territories or Egypt or Irak, they are going into the workforce without the other changes that needed to happen to facilitate them being able to do that and being happy. A lot of the women still have the majority of the caregiving role and the household responsibility. You have to make social changes so that there‘s more emphasis on co-parenting, on men and women working in the home, that make it a more desirable outcome for women than giving them a second fulltime job.”

In some cases, when women are brought into the workforce without a shift in social norms, the fact that they are able to earn an income makes them an even more tradable commodity. “We see this in areas where women are working, but they don’t have any more decision making powers in their homes and they don’t have access to their incomes.”

On the whole, however, Christian Aid find that there are clear economic benefits for the women who have received help finding work or setting up their own business. But the real advantage of these interventions affects society on a more profound level.

“We find consistently in our projects that women who are given the opportunity to go into the labour market are more confident, they are more able to raise their voice in lots of different parts of society; whether it’s religious expression, or political debate or household decision making. That’s where we see more equality coming into society. The whole idea is to not just give women an income, but to also give them a voice, and to make the changes happen side by side.”

One way to encourage a shift in social norms is to engage in conversation with families. Christian Aid’s local partners run workshops in refugee camps such as the Jalazone camp near Ramallah, giving women the skills needed to set up their own businesses. A lot of interested women struggled to attend, because of household responsibilities. Through speaking to the families of these women and taking on a mediating role, the aid workers were able to free the path for them to take part.

Although these interventions are helpful, Phoebe believes that changes to legislation will make the biggest difference. “The areas of the economy that have the most women working in them are also the most informal. A lot of the time women and their rights and needs aren’t cared for, because there are no laws to legislate for that. So if the legislation was changed, we would see women’s lives looked after more.” Phoebe also believes that laws on for example maternity leave can change the way women are thought of in their communities.

Currently, any women newly entering the workforce may well contribute to their country’s economy, but risk losing their jobs when times get tough. “When an economy contracts, normally the first people pushed out of the labour market are women. That’s a major barrier; that even though women are let into the labour market, men are still possibly more valued within it,” Phoebe says. I spot a parallel here with the UK, where women have born the brunt of the economic downturn, with three times as many women as men becoming long-term unemployed between 2010 and 2013 (The Fawcett Society).

Could female entrepreneurship be the answer, like Sam says?

Phoebe ways it up. “I think it gives women the flexibility that the workplace still doesn’t give them, and because of that a sense of worth that the workplace still doesn’t give them. That in itself is unfortunate, having to go things alone rather than in a group because that group can’t accommodate you. But it is empowering, and if you can make a go of it then it is a good option. One of the issues in the Middle-East context is that women find it very hard to get any capital behind them. A lot of the time because they don’t own anything to secure a loan with.”

Phoebe thinks the challenges for women in work are different to those men face, but only because of the existing social norms. “As a society we’ve built quite negative stereotypes around the genders. A lot of women feel quite beaten up and unhappy that they have to be the main caregivers, and a lot of men feel quite beaten up and unhappy about having to be the main providers. On both sides there’s a lot of pressure and not enough understanding. At the extreme of both of those roles I don’t think there is always complete fulfilment and happiness; I think that we have to be in between. I don’t think that we should just be coaxing women into the workplace, we also need to be coaxing men out of the workplace a little bit.”

In the UK, the new law on parental leave that came into effect earlier this month could be a step in that direction. But just like in the Middle-East, it is the interplay between legislation and a shift in social norms that will make the difference. “If you include joint paternity and maternity leave, but it’s still only the women who take it, and if you include flexible working, but it’s still always the mothers who take it, then you’re not levelling any playing field. It has to be led from the top. Is there a senior male colleague who is taking six months off to take care of his child?”

Phoebe acknowledges that it isn’t always easy to champion equality in your own life. With her husband working long hours on a much higher salary than her own, she isn’t sure what’s in store for her when they have kids. “My husband won’t suddenly be home at six o’clock to help me take care of them. He’s really caring, but he’s spent his whole life thinking he’s got to provide for a family, and he’s based his career on that. And I’m not necessarily the woman who wants someone else to earn all the money so I can raise the children. We suddenly have to look at ourselves and our own values in a way that you don’t expect to have to do in this country in this day and age. We’ve self-perpetuated all these things that we don’t really like. What have we put before our equality and our happiness?”

She would like to see a world in which both men and women make their own choices free from judgements. “I would really like to be a stay-at-home mum, if the truth be told, but the reason I don’t want to be is that I feel like so much of my value in how society sees me is tied up in what I do as a profession. I don’t want people to suddenly downgrade me.”

But change does happen, as Phoebe knows from personal experience. “My mother and my grandmother and my great-grandmother, this line of Palestinian women: our lives have all incrementally changed from the example set to us by the previous generation. I am very grateful to all the women who have come before, and I want to support all the women who will come after.”

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