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Real progress through social enterprises?

June 25, 2022

Jordan has vowed to close the gender gap by 2030, although nationwide progress has yet to be seen. Meanwhile, social entrepreneurship is picking up and could become key for female empowerment.

Queen Rania of Jordan sitting with women at a social enterprise in Amman
Queen Rania of Jordan is among the fiercest supporters of women's empowerment Image: Royal Hashemite Court/Royal Press Europe/picture alliance

If life were a little closer to political strategies on paper, Jordanian women would be enjoying equal pay, the same labor rights as men and equal integration in the labor market.

But despite the kingdom's promise in 2015 to close the gender gap by 2030, it still has a long way to go.

Despite having among the highest numbers of female university graduates in the region, Jordan also has the lowest female workforce participation in the Middle East. 

In fact, Jordan ranked 131 out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index for 2021.

This year, however, it seems that closing the gender gap is finally gaining momentum in Jordan. And social enterprises may be key. 

Slow progress

On a political level, women now enjoy more visibility — at least on paper.

In February, the word "women" was added to Jordan's constitution, which had previously read "Jordanians." The constitution now promises that "the state undertakes to empower and support women to perform an effective role in society building, while ensuring equity of opportunity, and to protect them from all forms of violence and discrimination."

Then in March, a law on political parties was updated. It now states that at least 10% of a party's founding members must be women, and the same percentage be people aged between 18 and 35. Furthermore, within three years, this percentage should be upped to at least 20%.

"The constitutional amendment and the reform of the law on political parties have generated a little more public attention which is urgently needed," said Magdalena Kirchner, resident director of the German-funded Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Amman.

Jordan: A new hope for women

In turn, Majd Isleem, a contributor to the report "Gender Equality and Decent Work in Jordan 2022," told DW that she sees the next priorities as ensuring "a work environment free from violence and harassment, gender equality, pay equity and maternity and paternity protection."

However, according to the latest survey by Arab Barometer from March 2021, the pandemic has further exacerbated the lives of Jordanian women, in addition to existing structural problems.

Economic empowerment remains a challenge

Such problems include, among other things, a disadvantageous inheritance law, male-dominated social expectations and the fact that many women take on care duties at home instead of following a professional career.

Despite its high rate of college graduates, only 14% of women participate in the workforce in Jordan, according to the International Labor Organization. That's the lowest rate in the region.

"The lack of economic empowerment stands as one of the obstacles to women's participation in public affairs," Wafa Bani Mustafa, Jordan's legal minister, told DW. 

With that in mind, ever more women are joining privately organized projects to empower each other. "Women are increasingly represented in Jordanian civil society, especially among urban elites," Kirchner told DW.

This engagement has led to a growing number of social enterprises.

Beduin women weaving in the Wadi Rum desert area
Beduin women weaving in the Wadi Rum desert area seek empowerment in Jordan's rural areasImage: Sandra Jelly

Mideast researcher Lilian Tauber recently described social enterprises as "innovative community-centerd organizations that use business strategies to address social issues." They are "particularly well positioned to help alleviate some of the challenges Jordan faces," Tauber wrote in a report for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

Hopes are high that this trend — in combination with other progress— could have the potential to turn the tide for women in Jordan.

Social enterprises are also regional

Sandra Jelly, who moved to the desert Wadi Rum some 14 years ago, has made it her mission to empower women, and is now doing so with her 'Lumeyo — Bedouin by Design' social enterprise.

For this, some 35 Bedouin women recycle threads, weave materials on the ground looms and hand-finish bags, rugs and seating pillows.

Jelly sees her main role as creating international demand for the Bedouin weaving craft, "so that local women in rural communities can work from home and help support their daughters go to university," Jelly told DW.

Bedouin women and social entrepreneur Sandra Jelly in Jordan
Social entrepreneur Sandra Jelly (second from left) helps Bedouin women who weave for their social enterpriseImage: Sandra Jelly

In contrast to nongovernmental organizations, which are mostly nonprofit, or international aid programs that are mostly temporary, social enterprises are neither limited in time nor turnover.

Yet figures breaking down the exact number of new or existing social enterprises remain elusive, as Jordan lacks any legal framework for this type of initiative.

Jelly, for example, decided to register her social enterprise as a for-profit commercial company.

Another social enterprise for women is run by Mei Hayashi, the founder of Tribalogy. She has been supporting refugee and non-refugee women from disadvantaged communities since 2013. 

"We are an income-generation project, provide training and employment so that these women can empower themselves and earn money," she told DW.

They sell traditionally embroidered products, with clients all over the world. Participating women benefit from an increased income.

She said that so far, she hasn't felt any impact from the government's steps to close the country's gender gap. 

"I don't see that the government's push is helping me, as there is still no encouragement for the social enterprise concept," Hayashi told DW.

Rising numbers

That could change if social enterprises continue to see success on the ground. Online and on social media at least, their presence is growing. 

Particularly popular are the social impact platforms Naua as well as Forsa,which claims to be the first Arab site for scholarships and open positions for graduates. There is also the government-funded platform Impacthub .

Also, on June 6, the government launched the 'Vision of Economic Modernization which seeks to enhance social entrepreneurship. "The Jordanian government aims to raise the economic participation of women to 37% over the next ten years," Wafa Bani Mustafa, Jordan's legal minister, told DW.

However, currently, there is only one foundation — the Jordan River Foundation — registered as social organization in Jordan. 

In late May, Queen Rania Al Abdullah, among the fiercest supporters of women's rights and empowerment in Jordan, visited the foundation.

"Had a wonderful sit-down with some of the amazing women working at the Jordan River Foundation's Al Karma Kitchen! I loved hearing about their journey with us and I couldn't be prouder!" the queen posted on Instagram.

The Jordanian queen's enthusiasm was priceless for women — and the future of social enterprises.

The article was updated on June, 27 2022. 

Edited by: Sonya Diehn

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa