Sahrawi women to get behind the wheel at new driving school
TINDOUF, Algeria, April 27 (UNHCR) - When Mana Mustafa suddenly went into labour, getting to the hospital with her elder sister Ghalia was not a problem - a neighbour drove them. But getting home over the Sahara Desert to pick up some much-needed baby items was.
"Because of our sudden departure, there was no time to bring anything to the hospital: no bedding, no clothes, and no swaddling clothes for the baby," 22-year-old Mana explains.
Unable to drive, Ghalia, 31, had little option but to walk several kilometres back to her home in Dakhla camp to pick up the items, which proved too bulky to lug back to the hospital on foot. She had to wait hours before she could get a ride back to the hospital as, like many Sahrawi women, she could not drive.
But rather than give in to frustration and helplessness, she and Mana stepped into gear. Motivated by the experience, they came up with a plan to found a driving school at Dakhla just for women, for whom getting behind the wheel is still considered uncommon, although conservative Sahrawi attitudes have started to shift.
"This perception is already changing quickly, as the need for women to drive is being recognized by the community - many families do not have a constant male presence, and so women within such families are dependent on others for transportation," Ghalia said.
Dakhla is one of five camps in south-western Algeria where thousands of Sahrawis have settled since the mid-1970s when fleeing conflict in Western Sahara Territory. Forty years on, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, continues to assist 90,000 vulnerable Sahrawi refugees, who rely on humanitarian assistance.
Their protracted displacement and limited prospects, particularly for younger people like Ghalia and Mana who were born and raised in the camps, fuels frustration. It is further aggravated by the isolation of Dakhla, which is the furthest camp from Tindouf, the only city of any size in the sparsely populated area.
Ghalia and Mana's project - which they pitched along with two other women from the camp - is one of several selected late last year by UNHCR and OXFAM Belgium that aim to empower young people and foster community spirit. It is set to open in the fall, and will be developed by the women themselves, with guidance and training from UNHCR and its partner.
"The driving school is exactly the type of project we need to improve the livelihoods of Sahrawi refugees, especially the youth, who have no shortage of great ideas and who know what they need," explained Isabel Selles Zaragozi, the Head of UNHCR's Tindouf sub-office.
"Together with our humanitarian partners, we have been providing for basic needs such as food, water and health. It's high time we invested as well in opportunities to empower the community and to create sustainable livelihoods projects, especially for the young generation - and this is what we have started to do over the last several years," she added.
Mana will be the school's director and Ghalia her assistant. They plan to enroll 100 women students in the first eight months and already have an instructor selected. Once it opens, the school will provide jobs for five people.
Mohamed Abdelhay, who heads up these youth projects for OXFAM, is himself a Sahrawi refugee. He said: "The younger generation has a lot of education and experience gained from outside the camps, but have not yet had the opportunity to apply their talents constructively, or to realize their potential. Establishing projects targeting real social needs will help them to do so."
Asked about how she will feel when she sees the women graduates driving, Mana is clear: "I will be very happy," she says. "Women will be free to move without depending on others."
By Russell Fraser in Tindouf, Algeria.