Events Ascame/ March 4, 2024/ Featured, Institutional

At just 25, Ms. Sana Afouaiz founded Womenpreneur Initiative, a network of 20,000 women entrepreneurs in 23 countries with the aim of advancing women’s place in the entrepreneurial scene, technology, innovation and society. Ms. Afouaiz also wrote the book Invisible women in the Middle East with one objective: shedding light on the invisible stories and the complexities of women in the Middle East and North Africa. Apart from this, she is an advisor to the United Nations, European Commission and corporate institutions and organisations on gender issues. In the following interview, this influential woman shares all her insightful thoughts on the urgency for equitable opportunities and rights of women across the Mediterranean region.

We would like to start asking you about the title of your book Invisible women in the Middle East: Why they are still invisible? What is their situation compared to women from Europe or Africa?
This book is not about the fact that these women are invisible. The objective behind the book is actually to shed the light on the invisible stories, on the complexity of realities of women in the in the Middle East and North Africa. I tell about women stories that are usually quite simplified, above all in the West, where we kind of have one single angle about what does it mean to be a woman in the MENA region. However, realities of women can be different from one to another. The journey is very individual, the reality is individual. In this book we aim to celebrate women who are already at the forefront of this change and to encourage others with the knowledge that it is possible to take up space and take on stereotypes.

I don't like to compare women from the West to the East. I'd rather look into the particular realities of women in the West and in the East. Comparison enforces stereotypes

What’s your opinion on the comparison between women in Europe and in the MENA region?
I would like to avoid this question because people usually compare women from the West to the East, like those who live better lives and those who don’t, those who have freedom, those who don’t, those who struggle, those who don’t. That’s not the aim of my book, which doesn’t focus on this comparison. I’d rather look into the particular realities of women in the West and the East. There are differences in terms of access to justice institutions, incentive gender laws, gender mainstream on different levels. But it’s very different at the same time, because if we’re going to compare Poland with the MENA region, I mean, if we’re going to investigate the abortion laws, we can find that North Africa is more leaned and more advanced on that level. So, the objective is not to compare, and I think we need to stop comparison between the East and the West, because it doesn’t serve, other than enforcing stereotypes of what is the reality of women in the region. However, there is a lot of work to be done, whether it is the East or in the West. There are a lot of things to be done to ensure a full equality between men and women, especially to guarantee equity.

What are the main challenges and obstacles that Mediterranean women still deal with nowadays?
When it comes to the challenges facing women in the Mediterranean region, on which level are we talking? Are we talking from the entrepreneurship perspective or are we talking in general? That’s very important. Now, if we’re talking about general perspective, there is a lot of work to be done, especially on the gender law enforcement. We need to change the mindset and also the cultural perspective, which is quite important, whether it is in the North or the South, in the East or West of the Mediterranean. There are lots of cultural norms that we need to defeat, to question, and to challenge. In my opinion, it is a priority to understand the women needs to put into practice gender mainstream policies.

Could you put any example?
For instance, when talking about reconciliation of work with family life, one of the main challenges in all the region but, above all, in the South of the Mediterranean. We see that there are a lot of women working in informal economy, and that is explained because of the inflexibility of working positions today in the labor market. 70% of the unpaid work is done by women, which is related to everything that concerns taking care of the children, the house, older people doing courses and stuff, which means that this is invisible work, which it is a work, and it is done by women. So, unless we provide facilities that can help both men and women to create a certain balance in their work and life, we will not see women giving up on their jobs to fulfill the family obligations. Addressing these challenges requires providing support structures that enable both men and women to balance work and family obligations without forcing women to sacrifice their careers. Ensuring women’s full access to employment opportunities is not only a matter of human rights but also essential for economic advancement, as excluding women from the workforce means missing out on significant economic opportunities. Achieving a balance in this area is crucial.

I am optimistic about the future of Mediterranean women. I am convinced that the future will be bright, inclusive and fascinating. It is essential to ensure that everyone is involved

What about Womenpreneur initiative? How did excellent idea come up and what are the main achievements?
Womenpreneur is a Brussels-based organisation launched in 2016 with the aim at driving visibility, social impact and resources for women in the ecosystem and beyond. Since its establishment, it has reached thousands of women and convened more than 40 global initiatives across Belgium and MENA region. For instance, we train women in entrepreneurship and technology. We help them find a job or run up their own business. We have so far trained more than 20,000 women, and- our aim is to reach out to more women.

And what is the main advice you give to the UN, European Commission and corporate institutions and organisations on gender issues?
At Womenpreneur, we advise United Nations and the European Union, corporate and other institutional institutions on women’s empowerment, inclusion, diversity and gender policy. Womenpreneur has been named among SE100 most inspiring Social Innovations and Social Entrepreneurship initiatives by Social Enablers. We have been heavily involved in SDGs discussions, helped to draft resolutions and recommendations and designed to promote women empowerment. For us, Womenpreneur is a way to show our commitment to what is happening to women in Europe, in the Arab region and in the North of Africa. This initiative is a contribution to change the history, to show that a more inclusive society is possible, as for men and women. It doesn’t matter what your gender orientation is, if there are safe spaces, equal access and equal opportunities.

Finally, are you optimistic about the future of Mediterranean women? A more diverse and inclusive society is possible?
I am indeed optimistic. One must possess optimism, hope, energy, and belief in the cause to work in this field. I am convinced that the future will be bright, inclusive, and fascinating. It’s essential to ensure that everyone is involved and that no one is left behind in achieving this vision.

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