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Source: United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)
28 September 2005

A Second Chance at Learning for Women in the West Bank

More than six months have passed since Tawjihi classes started at UNIFEM's two women's centres in the Northern Part of the West Bank — the Talfeet Women's Centre and the Allar Rural Girls Development Centre (ARGDC). The Tawjihi is a comprehensive exam that students must take at the end of their high school senior year to obtain a general diploma, which allows them to apply for university. The exam is considered a rite of passage for young Palestinians. Because many women in Allar and Talfeet dropped out of school at a young age, UNIFEM is attempting to close the education gap by providing Tawjihi classes for them so they too can get their diploma.

The women in both centres dropped out of school between 10 and 20 years ago; most are married, with some caring for five children or more. The enthusiasm that they bring to class shows that many are clearly enjoying their "second chance" at getting an education. They described numerous reasons for not being allowed to go to school or being taken out of school when they were young. Some cited financial reasons, especially in the context of growing social insecurity and instability after the first Palestinian uprising (the Intifada), while others pointed to the Occupation as the reason their parents refused to send them to schools in nearby villages, for fear of their safety. Marriage was the preferred option for girls as it guaranteed their security and safety. The deterioration of the political and economic situation also prompted more conservative attitudes among people, leading to a focus on education for boys over girls.

In July this year, the Tawjihi results of students in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip were announced by the Palestinian Ministry of Education. Fifteen women from Talfeet and 20 women from Allar were among the thousands that took the exam — they were not the only ones nervous to hear if they had passed; many of their villages and all the UNIFEM staff involved in the project also held their breaths in anticipation.

The final results saw 11 students from each centre passing, giving Allar a 73-percent and Talfeet a 55-percent success rate. There was much to celebrate as the pass rates were much higher than had been anticipated. UNIFEM staffer Samah Jaouny, smiling broadly, said: "These women have been away from books and education material for years. It was a challenge for us to renew their interest in education and get them back into classrooms to continue what they had begun years ago; and it was especially a challenge for them to prove to themselves that they can do it. We are all so proud of them!"

One of the women who passed is 40-year-old Ibtisam from Allar, who applied for the exam at the same time her daughter Mariam did. Ibtisam had taken the Tawjihi 20 years ago, but failed. She got married right after and is the mother of 10 children. When her eldest girl Mariam, who came of "Tawjihi age" this year, complained of being stressed about the exam, Ibtisam decided she would also sit for it to prove to her daughter that they both could do it.

Mother and daughter studied together day and night, and when they both finally passed, the celebration was almost wedding-like! People came from all over the village to congratulate them. Now Ibtisam is considering furthering her education at the nearest college, determined to finish a journey that she started 20 years ago.

37-year-old Faddah from Talfeet had already decided to study for the exam on her own. She had started reading from her brother's old books when she heard that the Talfeet Women's Centre was providing classes for free. She had only been able to complete the seventh grade, as her village's elementary school offered no more than that. To continue her education, she would have to go to the nearby village of Howara, and since her family was very poor and conservative, this honour student's dreams were soon shattered. She never lost hope, however, and when her brother finished the Tawjihi last year, her determination flared again.

Faddah passed her exam with flying colours, receiving 79.8 percent of the marks, the highest grade among all the students in the centre. Her grade was celebrated by her family and friends, and everyone at the centre. Faddah is dreaming about studying either English or nursing so that she can work in her village to earn some income for her family.

Because of the women's success rates, UNIFEM's two centres are growing in popularity, and plans are underway to expand the project to other areas soon.

(Story Date: 28.09.05)

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