Date: 23 August 2007
In Arabic, 'Sabaya' means 'young women'. And for many young women in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), UNIFEM's Sabaya Programme means a pathway to empowerment.
Sabaya Centres empower women to become agents of change in the struggle for a just, peaceful Palestinian society, by promoting their participation in the social, economic and political life of their communities. Piloted in 2004, the programme has focused on transforming facilities - 15 in the West Bank and 3 in the Gaza Strip - into Women's Centres, equipped to provide a range of activities and services, from educational and legal advice, to psycho-social counseling and support. Established and conceived by UNIFEM, the Sabaya initiative is being implemented in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). To enhance the Centres' networking and outreach capacities, UNIFEM has strengthened links with local service providers. The initiative has achieved remarkable results, not only in terms of protecting and empowering women, but even re-defining what it means to be a young woman in the oPt.
The women, and success stories, emerging from Sabaya Centres across the oPt, speak powerfully for themselves. Take the case of Ashjan Salah. Like many girls in rural villages of the oPt, she dropped out of school after her primary education. Four years later, her determination triumphed and she returned to school to complete her secondary education certificate. At this time, she became involved in the Faqou Village Sabaya Center. Encouraged by the Centre's Coordinator to continue her education, she enrolled in a local college and eventually graduated from the Faculty of Sociology. The Centre provided her with networking opportunities that have allowed her career to flourish. She was hired as a Communication Skills Trainer for the Faqou and Deir Abu Da'eef Sabaya Centres, and subsequently selected for a position at the Palestinian Central Bureau for Statistics in Ramallah. For Ashjan Salah, the Sabaya Programme has served as a gateway from her small, rural village to Palestine's largest city.
It was also through effective networking that the Beit Ula Sabaya Centre Coordinator managed to bring the international NGO, Relief International - Schools Online, to the Centre to conduct a two-month computer training course for 15 local women. Having completed the training, one of the participants was inspired to become a trainer herself and spread these skills to other women in her village. To do this, she organized computer courses at the Sabaya Centre, in conjunction with other women trainers. With active encouragement from Relief International and the Sabaya Centre, she has so far conducted two successful courses, completed by 20 women.
Yet the programme not only strives to build the capacity of women; it also recognizes the need to create an environment conducive to their participation in public life by changing prevailing perceptions of gender roles. Fostering community acceptance of young women's aspirations is another achievement of the programme. Maha, from a small village in the West Bank, defied her family to enroll in college. Her determination was great but, at first, the obstacles in her path proved even greater: her family's strained finances; their preference for educating males; and powerful resistance - fueled by her brothers - to the very idea of sending a girl to college. Then, in 2006, the Sabaya Centre opened its doors in Deir Abu Da'eef village, and doors began opening for Maha as well. Her involvement in several activities at the Centre did not escape the attention of her family, who slowly came to accept her prominent new role in village life. According to Maha herself, the psycho-social counseling supported by UNIFEM bolstered her confidence and belief in her right to play a role beyond the home. When Maha was selected as one of just 30 academic counseling facilitators for a local NGO, her family could scarcely object. Encouraged by this success and assisted by her income, she now plans to re-enroll for college.
Many more women in the West Bank, whose education was cut short due to financial, security or cultural constraints, have benefited from a second chance at learning through the programme. In Allar and Talfeet, deteriorating social conditions promoted conservative attitudes, such as focusing on education for boys and early marriage for girls. In 2005, UNIFEM provided Tawjihi classes to encourage women and girls to obtain their Tawjihi Certificate - a comprehensive exam students must pass at the end of high school to allow them to apply for university. Culturally, the exam is considered a rite of passage for young Palestinians. The Sabaya Centres have helped a number of women obtain their diploma. Among them is 40-year-old Ibtisam from Allar, who failed the exam 20 years ago and is now a mother of ten. When her eldest daughter complained of being stressed about the exam, Ibtisam decided to sit for it also to prove that they could both succeed. Together, they studied day and night and when they both passed, the celebration was almost wedding-like! Today, women continue to attend Tawjihi classes as part of the Sabaya Programme, and to receive academic guidance through a counseling project.
Given the prevailing climate of insecurity in the oPt, the programme has pursued a human rights as well as a development agenda, reflected in activities aimed to protect women victims of violence. In one particularly poignant case, the centre facilitated the legal support and rehabilitation of two sisters who had been violently raped by their father. When the matter came before the court, it was treated as a case of 'illegal sexual relations' rather than rape, resulting in the girls being found guilty and imprisoned. Fortunately, lawyers intervened in the case and visited the young women in prison. These lawyers were part of the Legal Counseling Project supported by UNIFEM and implemented through the Sabaya Centres. During a legal counseling session, women participants had raised this tragic story and asked the lawyers to intervene. In the face of fierce resistance from the victims' own family, not to mention the judicial system, they fought for the charge to be converted to the crime of rape. Reversing this gross miscarriage of justice opened the door to social rehabilitation for these victims of abuse. As a first step, the girls were transferred to a shelter for the protection and social reintegration of women victims of violence, which UNIFEM actively supports.
While it is all too-often assumed that women's rights can wait until the exigencies of war or social instability end, the success of this programme is proof that women's development and empowerment can be achieved even in contexts of ongoing crisis or conflict. The Sabaya Programme is a beacon of hope for closing the gendered education and opportunity gap that can be replicated in other regions. By enhancing women's power to speak for themselves and voice their aspirations, and raising awareness of their rights, the programme has begun to re-define what 'Sabaya' means for families and communities across the oPt.
For more information, the Sabaya Centres now have a website in Arabic (the English site is under construction): www.sabaya.org