Question of Palestine home
United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)
8 July 2007
Women’s Village Voice
It is always with trepidation that we get into our car to head out for a field visit in the West Bank … How many checkpoints are we going to cross? ... How many delays are we going to encounter? ... Are we going to have time to squeeze in our busy agenda? What delicious homemade treats await us? With a furrowed brow and a look of determination, we set off. We leave dusty, stony Jerusalem behind, and we manage to navigate the checkpoints; as the road follows the natural curve of the mountains, the landscape turns green, and we know that it is going to be a good day.
Our positive feeling is reinforced when we see the bright, open, beautiful faces of the women who greet us. They welcome us, overwhelm us with their generosity, and never fail to impress us with their resilience, determination, adaptability, and diversity. They are rural Palestinian women, and they are the main reason that we love to go to work every morning.
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the total rural Palestinian population is estimated to be 1,098,519 - almost half are women. They are a crucial human resource that upholds the social fabric of many isolated and marginalized Palestinian communities; from our experience, they have an incredible sense of community and an endless well of creativity that they want to use in order to help all the members of their village - old and young, girls and boys, men and women. The political situation, however, continues to wear down isolated Palestinian communities, and many villages suffer since, on one hand, they are cut off from urban centres, which have historically served as social and economic hubs, and on the other, they are cut off from land and water, which represent the core of their existence. Rural women face particular challenges, and in these difficult circumstances, despite their resilience, they can become particularly vulnerable.
“Education has become a necessity, but …” says a young woman from Deir Abu De’if Village in the Jenin district.
Education is an area that is close to the heart of Palestinians worldwide, and many feel proud of the fact that Palestinians are considered highly educated. How does this translate for women in Palestinian villages? According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the enrolment rates in basic education for girls in rural areas have improved over the past five years, since 2000. However, the trend is not so positive at the secondary level (grades 11 and 12), and only 19.1 percent of young women in rural areas are enrolled in secondary school. According to UNIFEM’s Indicators of Rural Women’s Development, the trend continues a downward spiral after secondary school: only 4.27 percent of women complete higher education.
“… she will only go to university as long as her family’s financial situation allows ...”
Many women in rural communities who are in their twenties, thirties, and forties are now feeling the longer-term effect of economic pressures and an incomplete education. The political conditions that prevailed during the second Intifada - extended closures and the decrease in job opportunities for male workers, particularly in the Israeli labour market - are now motivating them to pursue their education in the hope that it can help them obtain a job and a steady income for their families.
Hiyam, from the village of Talfeet in the Nablus district, completed grade 9 at school and promptly got married. She now has 9 children. Because of her husband’s illness, she had to take the responsibility for her family’s livelihood. She applied for a job as a janitor in the school. Afterwards, she joined the Tawjihi class organized by the UNIFEM-supported Talfeet Sabaya Centre and passed the exam with distinction. She went on to university and is currently in the third year of an English Language study programme. She has been able to manage to combine her household responsibilities, her job, and university study. She is an inspiration to her children and to many young women in her village.
Women in Palestinian villages tell us that the establishment of Al-Quds Open University, which adopts distance learning, has helped women complete their university education even when they are married. A woman from Kufr Ad-Dik Village states: “Over the past five years, 90 percent of married women in the village are pursuing their education at Al-Quds Open University in Salfit.”
“Women in the village are wives, caretakers for their households, farmers, and often productive members … provided that they work inside the village.”
The data proves it! According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, rural women account for the largest portion of women in the labour force and in the economic sector:
“During the Intifada, when workers lost their jobs, women started to search for jobs in order to ensure livelihood for their children. Whether working in sewing, food processing, farming, or selling, the most important thing is to gain an income. Women ask for much less than men …” says a woman from Arrabeh Village in the Jenin district.
The higher rates of labour-market and economic participation are explained by the fact that agricultural work is a main source of livelihood in rural communities and depends on household labour, particularly by women. Furthermore, due to their lower educational attainment and lower skill level, women in rural areas tend to take up unskilled jobs, which may not be popular among urban women.
“In the past, the woman’s role was restricted to her household and children and assisting her husband on the farm. She was not allowed to do much more than that …”
The nature of life in Palestinian villages has changed as a result of the political situation and has impacted the definition of roles assumed by women, requiring them to move beyond their reproductive role and venturing more into the productive and socio-political aspects of village life. Although there is a significant productive role for rural women, it often remains informal because it is part of household production and unpaid. Although women’s productive role brings economic benefit to the entire family, it does not help improve the economic status of the women themselves. Rural women may have ventured out of their homes, but their roles still remain largely restricted within the village and within prevailing social norms.
Palestinian women’s political participation is still weak. However, through the quota system in the most recent elections - in accordance with new election laws and under pressure from women’s organizations - women have been encouraged to compete. This has had a significant impact in Palestinian villages. According to the Central Elections Committee, in the local Palestinian councils, 75 women were elected through the quota system and a further 130 women were elected directly by majority vote! Also, two rural women have been elected as heads of local councils, and five rural women have been elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council through election lists (not as independent candidates). These results indicate the importance of rural women’s role in political life despite the challenges they might face in terms of how community members and other council members perceive this role. These impressive results have encouraged many women to run for political positions in future elections - boding well for increasing Palestinian women’s representation in decision making and ensuring that Palestinian village voices are heard!
Najwa, a rural woman from Beit Ula, was married at an early age and had the chance to complete her education. She obtained the Tawjihi certificate and a university degree in Islamic (Shari’a) law. Last year, she competed in the elections for the Beit Ula Municipality and was elected to the council. In addition to her new duties and to her role as a mother and farmer, she continues to work as a volunteer coordinator of Beit Ula Sabaya Centre.
Much can be said about Palestinian rural women, and no single article can do them justice. But a glimpse into their lives, challenges, and achievements can garner a better understanding of their underutilized potential. They have been instruments of change within their communities and have been challenging the norms that restrict their life.
Um Nidal from Deir Abu De’if, Jenin, says: “Throughout my life, I have worked in farming along with my own and then my husband’s family. I take care of the sheep and process dairy products. Ten years ago, I did something different and helped to establish a local women’s society. At that time, I felt that we should get education and training and started to encourage other women to get involved. It was very difficult at the beginning, but now, women join in with the activities more easily. I have also started to venture out of the village to attend courses and seminars in Jenin City.”
UNIFEM believes that women’s centres and networks in rural communities have contributed to changing the roles of rural women. They have supported and helped women take initiative, increased their community participation, and encouraged them to explore beyond the boundaries of their villages. Has this all increased the burden that they bear? Well, yes. Attitudes and behaviours take a very long time to change, but women are up to the challenge:
Um Nidal says: “Rural women are well organized. They prepare a schedule and a plan ahead of time because any activity they want to be involved in will need a portion of their valuable time. Therefore, you will find them getting up early in the morning to fit everything in. For instance, when I have a meeting or a course, I get up one hour earlier than usual and finish the household chores and the cooking. I go to the farm in the afternoon and process the cheese at night. Yes, it is tiring, but I would not give it up.”