If you come from the Arab region, you will no doubt recognize the term “Khattaba”—the word used to describe the traditional matchmaker who helps a young man find a bride. The brides have very little say in their futures. And when the marriage struggles or fails, the Khattaba is often blamed for poor judgment.
The same sort of situation occurs in youth employment programs, known as Active Labor Market Programs (ALMPs) in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. ALMPs emerged over a decade ago—the result of Arab spring-related unrest in the MENA region, when youth outside the well-connected elite began expressing discontent with their lack of opportunities. The situation highlighted the important role of youth in advocating for their own social and economic rights, as well as the need to promote a development paradigm driven by productivity and inclusivity. And many nonprofits—international as well as local nongovernmental organizations and community based organizations—formed ALMPs to step in as Khattabas of sorts, playing matchmaker by identifying skill sets required by the private sector for entry-level employees and offering training programs and placement services to youth.
The numbers are worse for young women: 41.8 percent of young women are unemployed, and 80.7 percent of young women are economically inactive.
In the marriage market, the proliferation of technology and social media sites has seen the development of professional services in which both the hopeful brides and hopeful grooms pay for e-matchmaking. With e-matchmaking, potential couples are matched and then approached by the match-making site with marriage applications. If there is interest, the two individuals are introduced and decide whether or not to marry.
The evolution of the Khattaba is seen as a form of empowerment of the bride, while bringing accountability to the groom.
My approach to addressing this need has been to shift from being a Khattaba to being a cheerleader, coach, and supporter, by founding the JoWomenomics initiative in 2014. The initiative works to resolve the hidden cultural and social barriers faced by women and to engage the private sector to become a real player in the employment game.
We work through community dialogue to change belief systems, promoting positive messaging about women in the economy that stems from our religion and culture. We also give the private sector the opportunity to dialogue with the community, which helps manage expectations about female employees. In addition, we identify collective solutions to the challenges women face to remain employed. These efforts help make the idea of women in the workforce both desirable and legitimate, and minimize the obstacles women face. And, recognizing that young females need empowerment and greater agency and that the private sector needs greater accountability in the game, we offer help when and if needed.
We know that the real players must be the employers and young females themselves, signaling the end of an outdated approach and the dawn of an era of independent choice.
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