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Source: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
5 October 2008
Commissioner-General's opening remarks

UNRWA Gaza Women's Committee Workshop

Gaza, 5 October 2008

Good Morning,

I am so very happy to be with you this morning and I thank you for inviting me to your Workshop. I hope you all had a good Eid break and that you have returned refreshed and ready to tackle the tasks that await you in your various work locations.

When we become UNRWA staff members, we dedicate ourselves to the service of Palestine refugees. As a body of staff, all our professional skills, our experience and positive personal qualities are merged in the collective effort of discharging UNRWA’s mandate and ensuring that the needs of refugees are serviced - efficiently and in a manner that promotes their dignity as human beings. It is through the combined efforts of each staff member that UNRWA’s work lives and progresses.

In much the same way, the work of the Gaza Women’s Committee will live and grow as you blend and nurture the strengths and abilities that each of you possesses as individuals. This is my message to you this morning – and it is a message captured in the headline of this Workshop: "Working together is a success".

The idea of women establishing Committees whose members are exclusively women is not new. For many decades in this region and in countries around the world, women have organized themselves in different ways and in various aspects of social and professional life. For us in UNRWA and in Gaza, however, the organizing work of Jacqueline and San’a and their teams has brought us a novel experience.

Over the past months, they and you have helped us to realize how much we have to gain as women if we stand united in our efforts to resolve our problems and to promote our common goals. Through the Women’s Committee our eyes have been opened to new possibilities. Each time we meet as a group, we understand better how much more we can contribute to our families, to our communities and to UNRWA, particularly when we liberate our own individual potential and work together as one.

I expect from my own experience that in forming the Gaza Women’s Committee and establishing its work, you have encountered – and will continue to encounter - difficult moments. The reality is that in the world in general and in the Middle East in particular, women face a hard, long struggle in their quest to be recognized as a social force in their own right and to enjoy status and opportunities equal to those accorded to men.

In some instances, the traditions of gender discrimination are so ingrained that women themselves may (unconsciously) promote them or fail to recognize the harm they cause to the society at large. Some of the obstacles you may face as a Women’s Committee are related to the fact that UNRWA’s sixty-year old institutional culture itself contains traces of gender inequality. While it is true that UNRWA is taking serious steps to address these issues through our new gender policies, I believe that we as female members of staff must take the lead on necessary reforms.

To do this, we should adopt a critical but constructive approach, enabling us to identify policies and practices that need to be made more gender friendly. At the same time, we should be creative in developing and trying out new ways of doing things, while preserving the best practices from the old ways. And it is important to have the courage to express our views, respectfully but persuasively, when we come across male or female colleagues who hesitate to make positive changes in UNRWA.

Thus far, I have referred to the potential – and actual - obstacles in the realm of attitudes to women and UNRWA’s institutional framework. As you know only too well, however, these are not the only impediments standing in the way of the Women’s Committee.

There are other problems and pitfalls that we face as individuals, even at the very personal level. There is the fact that your activities and responsibilities as members of the Women’s Committee are additional to the roles you perform within your families and communities and in UNRWA. Balancing these roles is no easy task. I consider myself fortunate to have had a flexible schedule as an academic during my children’s younger years and to have a very supportive husband as they grew older—when I moved to a demanding UN job.

More than this, however, there are times when our minds are filled with doubts about whether we can really succeed in making our communities think differently about the value of women or the power of women to be a positive force. There are times when we ask ourselves questions about whether this struggle to promote women’s rights is worthwhile in a context where there are so many urgent and competing priorities. And there are times when we are weighed down by the suffering and despair all around us in Gaza, especially when our own family members, colleagues or friends are directly affected by the harshness of life here.

I would like to offer the reassurance that although these difficulties and questions may at first seem worrying, you must take them in your stride as part of the process of adjusting to the challenge of achieving the aims of the Gaza Women’s Committee. Given the formidable nature of our tasks and the nature of the operational environment in Gaza, moments of concern and uncertainty are only normal. There is no such thing as a trouble-free struggle – and a struggle for the empowerment of women is inherently one of the most daunting. Problems and reasons for hesitation will be with us for some time to come but solving such problems makes you—and your committee and the women you work with--stronger.

The point I will stress, however, is that however large and persistent the difficulties, we should never lose our belief in the rightness of our cause. However gloomy the outlook may be, we should hold firm to the conviction that the impediments can be overcome and that there will come a time when you can draw satisfaction from what you have achieved as a Women’s Committee. I ask you to have faith in the achievement of your goals and to draw from the several sources of strength available to you as individuals and as a group.

To me, one of these sources of strength is the spirit of perseverance that emanates from the Palestine refugee experience. Sixty years have now passed since the 1948 conflict which transformed Palestinians into an exiled people. Over the years of persistent conflict and crises, you and your forebears have acquired extraordinary reserves of courage and fortitude. With the longing and waiting for a solution to the refugee condition, you have also developed an unshakeable determination to triumph over the adversity that surrounds you. Be aware that this strength lies within you; draw on these reserves and apply them to your work, and you will certainly succeed.

Another source of strength for your work is the pioneering spirit that I believe resides in each of you. As members of this Women’s Committee, you have chosen a path of leadership which has never before been have blazed. You are dedicated to moving yourself, your colleagues and the entire Agency in a new direction which promises benefits to us all. The fact that you took that first step to be pioneers indicates that you will refuse to be discouraged and that you will continue to find the motivation to accomplish the goals of the Women’s Committee.

The progress you have made over a relatively short period is yet another source of strength. I have personally witnessed this progress during my visits to your projects recently. I noticed a sense of excitement among you and the women at the centers, a positive atmosphere which suggests that you are beginning to realize the possibilities within your grasp. The work you have done so far may be only the beginning, but like all good beginnings, it establishes a secure grounding on which you can build in the months and years ahead.

I will conclude my remarks by referring to the one overarching source of strength that is indispensable to the work of the Gaza Women’s Committee. This is one I have already mentioned, but which bears repeating because it is so important. I am referring here to the spirit of solidarity, of unity and of togetherness. I ask you to stand together and stick together as women with a shared vision and a common cause. Be loyal to the aims of the Committee and be compassionate and supportive to each other as well as to others. For by so doing, you will demonstrate for all to see, within and outside UNRWA, what there is to gain from the work of the Gaza Women’s Committee.

I look forward to joining you at the end of the day for an open question and answer period when we shall have an additional opportunity to exchange experiences.

Meanwhile, do count on the fact that you have a (female) Commissioner General and several female Directors who are solidly behind your goals and achievements and a (male) Director of the Gaza Field who is equally enthusiastic and supportive. Add to this the strength of the entire United Nations machinery, which through its rules and regulations and multiple committees is pushing us all to aspire to higher and deeper levels of involvement in the organization and commitment to its ideals, and there are no limits to how much you can do and how far you can go.

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