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Economic empowerment: Jordan shatters gender roles by training female citizens and refugees as plumbers Open in fullscreen

Austin Bodetti

Economic empowerment: Jordan shatters gender roles by training female citizens and refugees as plumbers

Over 400 women in Jordan are being trained in plumbing [Getty]

Date of publication: 15 August, 2019

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In a bid to fight gender inequality and water scarcity, Jordan is training a legion of Jordanian woman and female Syrian refugees to become plumbers.

Sandwiched between Iraq, Israel, Palestine, and Syria, Jordan has found itself on the border of an international crisis more often than not.

The imminence and frequency of these foreign threats sometimes distract the Levantine country from addressing environmental and social issues such as gender inequality, unemployment, and water scarcity.

With a unique initiative, however, Jordanian officials hope to find a way to begin dealing with all three. Jordan is training female citizens and refugees as plumbers, a chance for many of the country's long-marginalised women to realise a form of economic self-sufficiency.

The Jordanian plan appears simple but revolutionary: by creating a reserve of female plumbers, Jordan will lower unemployment among women and mitigate water scarcity, given that the country loses 40 percent of its water supply to leakage from water pipes and tanks.

Fewer than one-fifth of Jordanian women have jobs, and an influx of Syrian refugees has overtaxed Jordan's job markets and water supply networks. Jordan wants to tackle these longstanding problems through women's empowerment.

"There are great efforts to implement national policies and mechanisms to increase women's employment opportunities, but there are also significant challenges," said Nuha Muhreiz, president of the Women Helping Women Network in Jordan.

"The environment in Jordan is not friendly to women, and the prevailing societal culture and stereotypical images drive many women to prefer to work in the public sector and in specific professions – such as education and healthcare – for the sake of job security and a type of schedule commensurate with their obligations to their families."

The environment in Jordan is not friendly to women, and the prevailing societal culture and stereotypical images drive many women to prefer to work in the public sector

Started in 2014 in cooperation with the German Federal Economic Cooperation and Development Ministry, the programme aims to combat gender discrimination by preparing Jordanian citizens and Syrian refugees to join a field often associated with men.

Backed by funding from Canada, the aid agency Oxfam has lent its own support, offering training in plumbing to over four hundred women in Jordan.

"Discrimination against women and gender inequality are one of the main obstacles to their economic empowerment," Muhreiz told The New Arab, pointing to the role of the Jordanian legal system. "The husband is entitled to prevent his wife from working unless required by the marriage contract."

The husband is entitled to prevent his wife from working unless required by the marriage contract

By shattering gender roles, the Jordanian initiative has not only given women in Jordan another avenue for employment in a sector dominated by men but also prepared Jordanian citizens and Syrian refugees alike to counteract water scarcity, which is ravaging the Middle East.

Still, the programme can only accomplish so much when it remains limited to several hundred Jordanian and Syrian women.

Resolving gender inequality in the workplace and as a whole will require Jordanian officials to implement comprehensive economic and social policies accounting for decades of gender discrimination.

So far, though, Jordan has struggled to meet this challenge as Jordanian women push for greater labour rights.

According to the think tank Freedom House, "women's rights have receded in Jordan, despite the monarchy's progressive official stance and huge US government investment in promoting democracy and human rights in the country."

Many Jordanian women still report facing sexual harassment.

"The training of plumbers is one of the projects that have proven successful in changing the stereotypical image of women's skills and abilities," said Muhreiz. "However, they are still within the constraints of society. Women are not able to enter foreign homes and are limited to making repairs."

Women are not able to enter foreign homes and are limited to making repairs

While Jordan's bid to increase the supply of female plumbers represents a promising start in the country's ongoing campaign against sexism, Jordanian policymakers will need to launch a greater number of these initiatives and pro-women economic and social policies to overcome unemployment, sexism, and other social issues affecting female Jordanian citizens and Syrian refugees.

The international community, which has long prioritised women's rights, will likely prove willing to assist Jordanian officials.

Jordanian King Abdullah II has made a point of highlighting his countrywomen's achievements, describing women as "the pillar" of Jordanian civilisation and noting that, without women's involvement in society, "the Jordanian family would not have developed and prospered."

His wife, Queen Rania, has evolved into a feminist cultural icon. Both can spearhead a campaign of women-friendly reforms.

The publicity and success of Jordan's small-scale programme to empower female plumbers can serve as a model for future Jordanian initiatives. Bringing more women into the private sector will contribute to alleviating some of Jordan's social issues, strengthening its economic growth, and – in the case of the plumbers – tempering water scarcity and other environmental issues.

The more energy Jordan invests in its female population, the greater returns the Levantine country will receive.

"Jordan needs an integrated system that begins with warning against discrimination in employment, preventing harassment, providing equal allowances and entitlements, and opening equal opportunities for women and men," Muhreiz told The New Arab.

"Jordanians require equal opportunities for rehabilitation, training, and development, and the Jordanian authorities must punish indirect and direct forms of discrimination to protect women's rights and participation on all levels."


Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda. His research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.

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