Azeya Abu Amra’s grocery store is located in As Salam neighbourhood in Rafah, southern Gaza. It is a neighbourhood that begins where the asphalt streets turn into dark-red sandy roads, bordered by donkey stalls and make-shift homes made of plastic, wood and corrugated metal. Around the corner from the local mosque, one finds a small shop with Azeya sitting behind the counter organizing boxes of biscuits, chewing gum and chocolate bars.
“I opened this grocery store five years ago. I soon noticed that other shop owners were more organized and successful. When I heard about the Female-Headed Household training through the Al Karama Association [an UNRWA-supported community-based organization], I decided to participate so I could learn how to establish a business plan,” she explained.
Azeya is one of 295 female heads of households in Gaza who to date attended a business training through the ‘Empowerment Programme for Female-Heads of Households’ project. The initiative is implemented by the UNRWA Gender Initiative in partnership with Aisha Association for Women and Child Protection through 15 community-based organizations. The project is funded by the Government of Norway.
The training aims at countering the hardship and poverty often experienced by female-heads of households in the Gaza Strip by providing them with skills to improve their own situation. At the end of each project cycle, the participants are invited to attend an open day in which local microcredit organizations provide information on available loans for small-businesses.
These families remain a particularly vulnerable group subject to marginalization, greater poverty levels and social stigmatization. Through targeted training the project offers skills-building on self-development, financial literacy and household management in order to better enable the participants to think strategically as decision-makers and equip them with the skills needed to manage income while also seeking innovation in resource-utilization. The project targets women who are widowed, divorced, single, separated or women who have a husband that is unable to provide for the family due to a disability or health condition – which is the case of Azeya’s husband.
Azeya says the training helped her to achieve a change in the management of her store, with better planning and investment, yet she did not make more profits so far: “My income has not yet increased, but this is mainly due to the very bad economic situation in Gaza, related to the ongoing blockade,” she explained.
In June 2016, the blockade on Gaza will enter its tenth year. Severe restrictions of movement of goods and people have crippled the enclave’s once thriving trade-based economy and pushed a large part of the population into unemployment, poverty, aid dependency and food insecurity.
Despite the difficulties, Azeya will not stop trying to earn her own income – she has no other option, thinking also about the future of her two sons: “I want to expand my store, and include items such as frozen chicken to attract more customers. I hope that one of my sons will go to the university, but the other one I hope will be able to take over a more or less solid business for his future.”
“I started to get up at 3 a.m. in the morning to prepare pastries. At the same time, I began to go to the market to compare prices and do calculations on expenses and profits,” she recalled. The business went well but Abeer felt she needed to improve her skills to be more successful. “I feel my business improved since the training. What I learned most is that I need to socialize, network and communicate better to develop and establish business relations to get more chances to market my products,” she explained. “While my husband was initially opposed to my business because he was concerned that I would fail, I like adventures and challenges. I was never scared. I am very proud of myself and I feel good when I walk in the streets with my pastries on the way to schools to sell them.”
“I felt proud and happy, but also scared. Finally I felt independent, but I also knew I lacked experience,” she commented. Heyam also received support from her family, particularly from her two brothers: “I support my sister because I want her to be independent and have a dignified life. She should not exclusively depend on UNRWA food assistance, but have her own income instead.”
Heyam tries to pass on the support she received to other vulnerable women. Today, she provides 12 other divorced, abandoned or widowed women with opportunities to earn their own income by selling them the cleaning supplies for a reduced price, enabling them to make their own profit when reselling them.
“However, one day I came up with the idea of setting up an educational centre that offers support classes in mathematics and science for students with difficulties in these subjects. I actually started my business with only one student; today, I teach six students, ranging from elementary to secondary school,” she explained proudly. Wafa wanted to expand her business and therefore participated in the ‘Empowerment Programme for Female-Heads of Households’ training programme.
“In the training, I learned how to plan, budget and calculate, and now I have a plan on how to expand my educational centre although at the moment I still lack the means to do so,” she explained.
Despite the difficulties, Wafa is not someone who gives up very easily, and to young girls in a similar situation like she was, she says: “Just keep going. Life is a struggle, but never stop trying to be happy.”