By Nitin Jugran Bahuguna, Womens Feature Service
A math whiz since childhood, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Rasha Al Dabbas, 15, would take up a career in engineering or medicine. So when she informed her parents of her dream to open branches of her own bank in different provinces of Syria after graduation, they were taken aback.
Dalal Al Imadi, 15, has come up with a novel idea of creating a website on the internet to design advertisements for companies. “This is a very rare idea, giving companies an opportunity to promote their products on my website. There is no such website in Syria, yet,” she claims proudly.
Turning away from the traditional and accepted career options of doctor, teacher or engineer, young women in Syria are setting out to storm the hitherto male bastion of the business world, be it in the banking sector, web-designing or as a private enterprise.
Under the auspices of SHABAB, a Syrian NGO, young girls are being given a unique opportunity to achieve their potential in diverse fields. The project is a national movement of local community action, dedicated to motivating and preparing young people to enter the business world by increasing their awareness of business and developing their key skills. “The objectives of SHABAB are to boost entrepreneurship amongst young Syrians, encourage them to enter the business world, equip them with the skills they need in order to succeed as productive individuals and create a positive impression of business amongst Syrian society,” explains Yamama Al-Oraibi, Project Manager, SHABAB.
The NGO runs four programmes aimed at people between 15 and 24 years old: Business Awareness; Know about Business; Business Experience and Business Clinic. In line with its emphasis on reaching out to youngsters throughout Syria, SHABAB has implemented these programmes in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Lattakia, Deir al-Zour, Tartous, Rural Damascus and Quneitra.
Volunteers from the business communities bring their knowledge and experience into the classrooms. Besides raising awareness of business among young people, the project is an effective example of how the business world can contribute to the local community, states Yamama. “Since its inception three years ago, the project has directly benefited over 46,000 young people in 500 schools and recruited over 350 business volunteers,” she maintains.
At the Al Farouk School for Girls in downtown Damascus, students of Class 10 are busy working on their different projects in groups of six. Rasha, who is the Marketing Manager of her project, says she and her friends want to set up a bank, which will have branches in each province “because we want to provide services to the largest number of customers”.
She is aware of the challenges of competing with bigger established banks in the country, but has worked out a strategy to offer quality services. “To attract more customers, we will hold a lottery on special occasions and during Easter we give our customers gifts. We will also put up a permanent donation box in our bank for charity collections,” she elaborates.
“This project has opened our eyes to the different job possibilities we can explore. As women, we don’t need to confine ourselves to teaching or other traditionally accepted female occupations. After discussing this with my parents they have been very supportive. They know that Maths is my favourite subject and are confident I will excel because of my determination,” adds a smiling Rasha.
The optimism and enthusiasm of these adolescents is amply demonstrated as child after child talks animatedly about her pet project. “I want to start a clothes and toy company for children, which I will name ‘Baby Tune’,” says Sara Parees, 15. Envisioning a luxury company offering competitive prices, Sara hopes to raise the initial capital by approaching charitable institutions or established business firms. “I feel as a single woman one has an advantage as charities look favourably upon us for loans. Also, I could approach big companies to sponsor us if we agree to give them a percentage of our future profits,” she avers.
“I don’t think every woman should be a doctor or engineer. Girls have more choices today,” asserts Rouqa Hamzah, 16. Rouqa and Yoser Shelleh, 15, want to be designers of ladies’ garments and accessories. They have already earmarked a site in the city where they will open their boutique, Beauty World, after graduation. “The logo of our boutique is a yellow lamp. The idea is to tell customers that our shop is like the genie of Aladdin’s lamp and we will provide them with all their needs,” explains Yoser.
“Our dresses will all be in the western style as it is in vogue now among girls and women for both formal and party wear,” adds Rouqa. The two, in partnership with another friend, plan to each bring some capital to start their dream shop. “Yes, it is a risk, but it is interesting and it’s also what we want to do. We are confident because each of us will pool different experiences in the field,” says Yoser.
Mariam Idris, 15, has planned a mall called Shining Island that will include a spa, an American restaurant and a dormitory for children.
One of the distinctive features of SHABAB is that it offers different segments of society the opportunity to participate in the implementation of its programmes and thus play an active role within their local community, states Mais Balkhi, a Business Experience Assistant Manager. She points out that its strongest working relationships are with the local business communities, government and civil society.
SHABAB forms part of the Syria Trust for Development. The first NGO in the country, it was launched under the patronage of Syria’s First Lady, Asma Akhras al Assad. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), female participation in total labour force has increased from 12.4 per cent to 16.3 per cent between 1994 and 2006.
To encourage young women entrepreneurs, the government has started a two-fold micro credit scheme that gives women both access to finance as well as training in marketing, sales and advertising at special training centres, Assad reveals. Observes the First Lady, “We are the first country in the Middle-East to develop a micro credit legislation to support small entrepreneurs to register their companies in the formal sector so that they have more benefits like tax benefits.”