Empowering Arab women scientists for leadership roles

The AWLA program is set to shake up the role of women in science in the Middle East and North Africa. Female scientists make up just 17 percent of the total across the MENA region — the lowest number in the world. (Shutterstock)
Updated 13 August 2019

Empowering Arab women scientists for leadership roles

  • AWLA fellowships are designed to develop a cadre of scientists for leadership roles in agriculture
  • A total of 22 scientists from across the MENA region have just become the first AWLA fellows

DUBAI: Imagine a program that aims to develop a pool of Arab women researchers who can make a positive impact in their workplaces, communities and countries. Next, imagine a program that seeks to utilize the talents of these researchers to achieve agricultural prosperity and also addresses the career challenges they face.

Now imagine a single program that combines those two objectives plus advances the UN’s goal of achieving “a more sustainable future for all.” Established recently by the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), Dubai, the program is called Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture (AWLA).

Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, AWLA seeks to develop a cadre of Arab women researchers equipped with the knowledge and leadership skills to advance the goal of agricultural sustainability and food security in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Far away from the glare of the media, a cohort of 22 women scientists from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia recently became the first AWLA fellows. As members of the region’s first networking platform for female researchers working in various agricultural and food security-related disciplines, they will address pressing regional challenges.

“We believe women in management will understand the challenges better,” Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, ICBA’s director general, told Arab News. “The fact that very highly educated women get stuck in lower positions doesn’t give a country the full advantage of female education.

“Once you have a woman at the helm of an organization, you have what I call ‘soft leadership’. It’s about engagement.”

Elouafi said the idea of AWLA began two years ago, designed based on data from the Arab world.

The numbers showed that female representation was strong regionally at university level — around 50 percent — but made up less than two percent at the management level in the workplace. On average, just 17 percent of scientists across the region are women, the lowest rate in the world.

“Agriculture employs a large number of women, mainly at factory, food-processing and farming levels,” Elouafi said.

“Yet we see very few women in the upper management of scientific organizations, specifically in agriculture. This means there is something wrong.”

She said the name AWLA — which means “I am worthy” in Arabic — was chosen because “we wanted an Arabic word that meant that every Arab woman should be invested in to provide her with the opportunity to advance her career.”




The 22 Arab women scientists from across the Middle East and North Africa selected for the first fellowships under the AWLA program. (Supplied photo)

The first phase of AWLA commenced with an eight-day workshop on June 30 in Tunis, involving mentoring, orientation classes and positive leadership sessions. The 10-month program will be conducted in Tunisia and the UAE, and will include three face-to-face learning modules and 12 research and development online courses.

A critical element of the program is team-based academic “capstone projects,” which will give the participants an opportunity to apply the skills, tools and knowledge they will have gained during the 10-month fellowship. To encourage diversity and inclusion, the teams comprise fellows from different countries and backgrounds. The idea is to encourage interaction between the team members.

At the end of the program, the fellows will have to present their projects and hold discussions with potential funders.

“Through this first workshop, I have started to find myself,” said Dr. Hasna Ellouzi, an assistant researcher at the Biotechnology Center of Borj Cedria in Hammam-Lif, Tunisia.

“Now I believe that every step, every second of my journey depends on me. I now see my goals. They are in my hands and I am sure that through AWLA, I will be able to achieve them.”

We believe every woman given an opportunity  to go through the mentorship program can advance her career.”

To meet the expectations of Ellouzi and other fellows, AWLA will facilitate their access to leadership roles; promote research excellence and impact; encourage gender-responsive working cultures and enabling environments; and provide a platform for highlighting their intellect, capability and contribution.

Elouafi, the ICBA head, has few illusions about where the problems lie. “We have still a male-dominated leadership in this region, not just in agriculture and science,” she said. “And the reasons behind this phenomenon are both cultural and biological. Many women want to have a family.”

At the same time, according to Elouafi, women have an edge over men in the way they lead. “It’s not only about rules and responsibilities, hours and deliverables, or being tough,” she said. “It is much more about engagement, fulfilling yourself and delivering.

“I don’t see it much with male leaders because it takes a lot of emotional intelligence, an area where women have a natural advantage.”

The difference AWLA could make at an individual level is obvious to Dr. Mounira Azouz, a fellow from Algeria who works as a food scientist at Algeria’s National Institute of Agricultural Research. “The fellowship is a huge opportunity for me,” she said, “to improve my skills and learn new tools to enhance my capability for leadership roles in the food and agriculture sector.”

On a broader scale, AWLA is aligned with four of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — on gender equality (SDG 5), climate action (SDG 13), life on land (SDG 15), and partnerships for the goals (SDG 17).

As AWLA’s website puts it, the program’s “long-term goal goes beyond capacity development and includes improved food security and nutrition, a better research and development landscape, and economic and social benefits of a narrowed gender gap in the region.”

According to Dr. Mouldi El-Felah, a professor of agronomy and genetics from Tunisia, “The program is very important and very innovative. What I found during the workshop is that the approach is very clear and helpful for women fellows who will take on leadership roles in agriculture in the future.

“In this way, AWLA works to address an important issue, namely the gender gap in the region.”

Ultimately, AWLA is about giving female Arab scientists the equal opportunity they deserve, Elouafi said.

“We believe that every woman who is given an opportunity to go through the mentorship and leadership program, can eventually acquire the skills necessary for advancing her career.

“Most of these women didn’t get the opportunity to develop their leadership abilities. So we are hoping that once they get the opportunity, they will see how enjoyable the job and experience could be. This will make them interested in managerial positions.”


Mideast faces opioid crisis as it rages through developing world

Updated 13 December 2019

Mideast faces opioid crisis as it rages through developing world

  • Mass abuse of the opioid tramadol spans continents, from India to Africa to the Middle East
  • Abuse is now so rampant some countries consumed by it are asking international authorities to intervene

KAPURTHALA: Reports rolled in with escalating urgency — pills seized by the truckload, pills swallowed by schoolchildren, pills in the pockets of dead terrorists.
These pills, the world has been told, are safer than the OxyContins, the Vicodins, the fentanyls that have wreaked so much devastation. But now they are the root of what the United Nations named “the other opioid crisis” — an epidemic featured in fewer headlines than the American one, as it rages through the most vulnerable countries on the planet.
Mass abuse of the opioid tramadol spans continents, from India to Africa to the Middle East, creating international havoc some experts blame on a loophole in narcotics regulation and a miscalculation of the drug’s danger. The man-made opioid was touted as able to relieve pain with little risk of abuse. Unlike other opioids, tramadol flowed freely around the world, unburdened by international controls that track most dangerous drugs.
But abuse is now so rampant some countries consumed by it are asking international authorities to intervene.

Grunenthal, the German company that originally made the drug, is campaigning for the status quo, arguing international regulations make narcotics difficult to get in countries with disorganized health systems, and adding tramadol to the list would deprive patients in pain access to any opioid at all.
“This is a huge public health dilemma,” said Dr. Gilles Forte, the secretary of the World Health Organization’s committee that recommends how drugs should be regulated. Tramadol is available in war zones and impoverished nations because it is unregulated. But it is widely abused for the same exact reason. “It’s a really very complicated balance to strike.”
Tramadol is not as deadly as other opioids and the crisis isn’t killing with the ferocity of America’s struggle withe the drugs. Still, individual governments from the US to Egypt to Ukraine have realized the drug’s dangers are not as limited as believed and worked to rein in the tramadol trade. The north Indian state of Punjab, the center of India’s opioid epidemic, was the latest to crack down. The pills were everywhere, as legitimate medication sold in pharmacies, but also illicit counterfeits hawked by street vendors.
This year, authorities seized hundreds of thousands of tablets, banned most pharmacy sales and shut down counterfeit pill factories, pushing the price from 35 cents for a 10-pack to $14. The government opened a network of treatment centers, fearing those who had become opioid addicted would resort to heroin out of desperation. Hordes of people rushed in to seek help in dealing with excruciating withdrawal.
For some, tramadol had become as essential as food.
“Like if you don’t eat, you start to feel hungry. Similar is the case with not taking it,” said auto shop welder Deepak Arora, a gaunt 30-year-old who took 15 tablets day, so much he had to steal from his family to pay for pills. “You are like a dead person.”
Jeffery Bawa, an officer with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, realized what was happening in 2016.
Police began finding pills on terrorists, who traffic it to fund their networks and take it to bolster their capacity for violence, Bawa said.
Most of it was coming from India. The country’s sprawling pharmaceutical industry is fueled by cheap generics. Pill factories produce knock-offs and ship them in bulk around the world, in doses far exceeding medical limits.
In 2017, law enforcement reported that $75 million worth of tramadol from India was confiscated en route to the Islamic State terror group. Authorities intercepted 600,000 tablets headed for Boko Haram. Another 3 million were found in a pickup truck in Niger, in boxes disguised with UN logos. The agency warned that tramadol was playing “a direct role in the destabilization of the region.”
“We cannot let the situation get any further out of control,” that alert read.
Grunenthal has campaigned to keep tramadol unregulated. It funded surveys that found regulation would impede pain treatment, and paid consultants to travel to the WHO to make the case that it’s safer that other opioids.
Spokesman Stepan Kracala said regulation would not necessarily curtail illicit trade and could backfire: Some desperate pain patients turn to the black market if no legal options exist.
This has happened in India, which regulated tramadol in 2018. Regulators say exports overseas and abuse at home came down. But they acknowledge that the vastness of the pharmaceutical industry and the ingenuity of traffickers makes curtailing abuse and illegal exports all but impossible. Tramadol is still easy to find.
Jyoti Rani stood on her front steps and pointed to house after house in the small city of Kapurthala where she said tramadol is still sold in her neighborhood of narrow roads and open drains, where school-aged boys sit hunched over the street in the middle of a weekday.
Rani’s addiction began with heroin. When her 14-year-old son died, she fell into depression.
“I wanted to kill myself, but I ended up becoming an addict,” she cried. A doctor prescribed tramadol to help kick the habit — instead, she formed a new one.
Now she is among about 30,000 people in Punjab who go to government-run addiction clinics for daily treatment.
Countries’ efforts to control tramadol on their own often fail, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, particularly in places where addiction has taken hold.