A network of women is helping to highlight the cultural heritage of their country.
Lebanon is a beautiful land that has seen numerous cultures grow and settle there. Remnants of the Stone Age are still visible there today, and since then, the Phoenicians, the Egyptian civilization, Mesopotamia, the Persians, the Greek civilization, the Seleucids, the Roman Empire, the Arab culture, the Crusaders, the Mamluks, and the Ottoman Empire have all left their footprints in this land. Unsurprisingly, as a crossroads of civilizations, Lebanon has often been shaken by wars.
Wars in recent history
In the 16th century, Lebanon was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. In 1860, a confrontation between the Druze faith and Christians, called the Mount Lebanon Civil War, caused 12,000 deaths. After the First World War, it became a Protectorate of France, until 1943 when it was constituted as an independent state. In 1958 a conflict broke out in which the Muslims, supported by Egyptian President Nasser, faced off against the Lebanese government forces, led by Lebanese President Camille Chamoun, a Christian. Military and diplomatic intervention by the United States of America led to a fragile peace.
In 1970, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) settled in Beirut, the capital, and began to attack Israel from southern Lebanon. The atmosphere became increasingly tense, and finally, in 1975, a Lebanese civil war began, involving Maronite Christians, Muslims, and secular sectors of the population, with the involvement on the part of other regional powers supporting the various parties in the conflict. This war lasted until the end of 1990, in what became 15 years of massacres and a diaspora resulting in millions of Lebanese spreading across the seven continents, where many remain today. In May 2000, in a unilateral decision, Israel withdrew all its troops from southern Lebanon.
In July 2006, however, another conflict broke out with Israel. As a result of that situation, as many as 1,271,000 people died and 550,000 were displaced, according to data provided by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The country, at that time, was economically devastated and left without basic infrastructure.
Since then Lebanon has suffered from relatively frequent terrorist attacks, the most significant of which occurred on November 12, 2015, leaving 43 dead and 200 injured.
How they moved forward
Faced with uncertainty and difficulties, many families asked themselves how to move forward without needing to leave their country. The unemployment rate for women in Lebanon is 94 percent; so, they felt it was time to draw strength from weakness and get creative. Among other initiatives, a network of women specializing in rural tourism was born in the region.
In April 2009, the Women in Rural Lebanon Areas Network (WIRLA) established a training program that allows women to take advantage of what the Lebanese land can offer tourists: enclaves full of history, on the one hand, and Mediterranean arts and crafts as well as local produce, such as olives, grapes, figs, and vegetables, on the other.
WIRLA has developed a training program that allows women both to work as tour guides in their own town and to organize small business enterprises, providing restaurant and lodging services. The classes are taught in a group format, but the content becomes personalized so that each of them is able to adequately explain to tourists the various monuments of their locality or region, as well as enabling them to produce and sell various artisanal products.
Professional autonomy that helps the country
In Lebanon you can find pottery, embroidery, needlework, sculptures, and more, that represent the traditions of the country. Rural women have been trained to act as small entrepreneurs, doing enough business so as to allow their families to make a living. Furthermore, such entrepreneurial initiatives have provided greater social cohesion, empowerment of women, and much needed peace in territories that until recently had suffered greatly.
In the case of the women who now work as tour guides, all of them speak Arabic, and some have learned English and French to communicate with visitors. Whenever they deem their level of English or French insufficient to establish adequate dialogue with tourists, they make use of several cards with all the relevant information.
The network has managed to train 37 women through Al Tilal Institute of Management and Services, in what can be considered their first graduating class. They are being followed by other women who can now specialize in areas such as marketing, historical-cultural heritage, or knowledge of the Christian roots of Lebanon through their churches.
Among the various tourist routes, one of the most popular is that of Byblos, a city about 18 miles from Beirut, which UNESCO declared a World Heritage Site. It includes 21 nearby towns that offer various enticing reasons for international tourists to visit.
In 2016, the training initiatives of the WIRLA network were awarded the WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education) Award for focusing on the empowerment of women and the creation of value. This is the video offered by the organization that awards the prize, under the auspices of the Qatar Foundation.