SANTO DOMINGO, Sep 18, 2011 (IPS) – From a small office inside a public school on the eastern side of the Rio Ozama in the capital Santo Domingo, a programme operated by a local NGO, Ce-Mujer, has been leading a quiet revolution to empower women in the workplace for the last 13 years.
After an initial three years of pilot programmes, the Programme for Technical Training and Jobs for Women has trained over 6,000 women in non-traditional jobs such as furniture making, upholstery, small appliance repair, and the installation and repair of power invertors – all areas for which there is great demand in the labour market and in which there are few women working.
While the government donates the space for the office and classrooms, as well as the services of the teachers, Ce-Mujer provides the administrative staff and the direct contact with the students.
“Our work is probably equally divided between teaching them a skill and building their self-esteem and their motivation so that they can once again discover their aspirations and their dreams. We believe that work has no sex,” Nelly Charles, the project director, told IPS.
There is no tuition charge, but the students must pay for transport and for a wardrobe which may be different than the one they wear at home. Since many of them are mothers and grandmothers who have to care for young children, Ce-Mujer provides a child care facility close by. While it is subsidised, it still costs 25 dollars a month. Yet it is one of very few such centres available in the Dominican Republic and so makes the classes more accessible.
The programme is aimed at very poor women. The average age of participants is 35, and the courses are two months long. While some students only take one, many will study for two years and become fully qualified in a given area. Then, Ce-Mujer works to find them jobs.
“While there are many businesses with women who are very responsible and very organised, it is also true that there are others who see a woman and expect her to clean the bathrooms,” Charles said. “We present them with women who are qualified, who can really do the work, and they have to change their minds.”
Charles speaks with an angry edge in her voice when discussing the unequal investment made in the technical training of women.
“We have technical schools here, big ones, where the administration alone employs 30 people, and you will see that both teachers and students are totally segregated by sex. The women will learn hairdressing, acrylic nails, flower arranging, cake making. And the men? The men learn residential electricity, furniture making, carpentry, automotive mechanics, electronics,” she said.
“And they will invest five million pesos for a mechanics workshop and only 50,000 pesos for a beauty shop. And in that one there are 100 percent women.”
According to the figures from the Centro del Investigation para Accion Feminina (CEPAF), 62 percent of the university graduates in the Dominican Republic are now women. But this does not always translate into jobs.
At 25 percent, the unemployment rate for women is three times higher than that for men. In addition, 40 percent of households are headed by single women. There also is a gender gap inside of the university, with only a small percentage of women studying engineering and only 30 percent engaged in any study of information technology.
The women who complete full training in the Ce-Mujer programme can expect to earn two or three times the minimum wage. Some have even bought houses.
An average of 100 women are qualified every year, but not all of them will actually work in the field.
“Say that 20 or 30 percent of those will decide to work. But those who take jobs turn out to be very permanent workers,” Charles said.
In addition to the classrooms, Ce-Mujer also has a store on a corner in the neighbourhood not far away, where students and graduates can sell their pieces on a consignment basis. The shop is filled with the finely upholstered heavy mahogany furniture which is the style here, along with more modern pieces such as clothes hampers and babies’ cribs.
Loyda Jerez, 45, started her fourth course last month. “I come to class four hours a day. First I took reupholstering, then furniture refinishing and now cabinetry. Now I say I am an interior decorator,” she told IPS.
Jerez has three children at home, ranging from 13 to 19 years old. She first came to class just to save herself some money.
“Every time that I went to have my furniture repaired, it was very expensive. Now I see that I can do it myself and I really enjoy the work. This is my last course. Now I am going to have to go out and look for money,” she said.
Jerez appeared downcast for a moment, but immediately regained her enthusiasm. “A friend and I are thinking of starting a little business together,” she said.
Charles added that, “What we are doing is subversive and revolutionary, and we have made real advances. This is a novel idea in this country. We have to teach the women who sometimes say that they cannot do this because the men cannot cook, or the men cannot do the dishes.
“But we have shown that if they are given the chance, we have shown that women can do anything. Because we have many women now who are furniture makers, and upholsterers, and who do it with joy, and with a sense of responsibility equal to that of men.”
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