Press Release
Department of Public Information · News Coverage Service · New York

27 May 1997


Final Panel Focuses on Promoting Gender Equality, Women's Full Participation in Society

AMMAN, 22 May (UN Information Service) -- The United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People this afternoon concluded its three-day session and adopted a final report summarizing its deliberations on the need to mobilize international assistance to promote sustainable Palestinian human development.

Earlier in the day, the Seminar held its third and final round table, on the theme, "Promoting gender equality and the full participation of women in society". Participants discussed the status of Palestinian women and the obstacles they face, as well as current legislation and policies affecting women in the West Bank and Gaza. They also considered the implications for Palestinian woman of the Beijing Platform of Action, adopted in 1995 by the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women.

Moderated by the Director of the New York Office of the Development Resource Center in Gaza, Patrick Kane, the final panel also considered the challenge of empowering Palestinian women through education and training, as well as means of encouraging women entrepreneurs.

Although women experienced empowerment as a result of their involvement in the intifadah, the transition from an ad hoc non-governmental women's movement into formal participation in the embryonic government had so far been an unsatisfactory process, a researcher at the British Council in London, Maria Holt, told the Seminar. The gains they made had not been sustained. Palestinian women now found themselves outside the male-dominated political circles where official policy on the future of the Palestinian territories was being decided.

Despite a coordinated effort to get women into the 88-seat Legislative Council during the first Palestinian election in January 1996, only five women had gained seats, Ms. Holt went on to say. Yet behind the struggle for female representation at all levels of the transitional government lay the frequently grim reality of life for the majority of Palestinian women. With the drop in the marriage age, discriminatory employment practices and the intifadah's disastrous effect on educational standards, Palestinian women found themselves disadvantaged on a number of levels. They also had to cope with contradictory societal trends -- the traditional Islamic and secular democratic.

"Despite economic pressures, there remains resistance to the notion of women having careers or jobs outside the home", Ms. Holt said. Women often had to take poorly paid jobs with few rights. Owing to the traditional division of labour between the sexes, women still retained sole responsibility for housework and child care. As a result, many were eventually forced to withdraw to the home. Nevertheless, Palestinian women were pinning their hopes on education as a tool of empowerment, "refusing to accept this generally dismal state of affairs without a fight".

The Chairperson of the University Programme Education and Development at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, Fathiyyeh Nasru, spoke of the challenges facing Palestinian women in education. She stressed that investment in education must be a top priority in order to achieve sustainable human development.

According to Palestinian Ministry of Education statistics, the educational sector addressed the social, educational and employment needs of 35 to 40 per cent of the population, Ms. Nasru said. While female student enrolment and the number of female teachers in Palestinian schools had risen to almost 50 per cent during 1995-1996, the number of women carrying doctorate degrees remained low. Of the 594 Ph.D. holders on the faculty of various Palestinian universities, only 6.7 per cent were women.

Ms. Nasru proposed a specific project to promote equality by breaking down male and female role barriers as early as nursery school. Such a nursery school system, coupled with community awareness programmes, could enhance the role of education and accelerate the development of Palestinian society. The low number of nursery schools hindered women's participation in the work-force. Only 6.06 per cent of Palestinian children of nursery age were in such schools or kindergartens, demonstrating the seriousness of the problem facing women who wanted to enter the labour force.

Although Palestinian women had played a major role in the national struggle and in fighting the decline resulting from Israeli occupation, they had been excluded from the official development structures, the deputy head of a United Nations human development project in Ramallah, Nader Izzat Sa'id, told the Seminar.

"Most development efforts place women in the shade and are based on the assumption that the benefits of development targeted at men must trickle down to the rest of society, including women", Mr. Sa'id said. Although that theory was "narrowly" true, "its essence was extremely dangerous, as it reinforces the current prejudice against women".

Women's contribution to the development process must be direct and effective, Mr. Sa'id stressed. That could only be achieved through their participation in decision-making on development policies. While women's participation in the development process was becoming increasingly significant, serious obstacles remained.

In the economic sector, women's participation remained low in the formal labour market and was still undervalued in informal labour areas, particularly agriculture, Mr. Sa'id said. Women also continued to face discrimination in matters of recruitment and wages. In the social fields, the obstacles facing women were growing more acute -- strikingly demonstrated by high fertility rates, low marriage age and the absence of any social system for care of children and the aged. As a result, women were deprived of the ability to participate effectively in other social activities.

Mr. Sa'id made several suggestions on how Palestinian women could be included in the development process. Among those were the adoption of comprehensive gender-sensitive policies, a quota system favouring the equal participation of women in decision-making at the highest levels, proper remuneration for women's work and the elimination of physical and mental violence against women. He also called for redrafting and updating of the personal status law, as well as compliance with the principles enshrined in relevant international instruments and conventions.

Agreeing with Mr. Sa'id's assessment of the status of Palestinian women in relation to their participation in decision-making, the General Director of Gender Planning and Development at the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Planning, Zahira Kamal, said women were far from being in a position of influence in decision-making.

"The low representation of women in central decision-making bodies, coupled with their lack of influence and presence in other instances, has adversely affected their status and ability to wield influence in society, which has been reflected in development plans that failed to take women's needs into consideration", Ms. Kamal said.

Emphasizing that successful development required the formulation of developmental policies and programmes which considered both sexes in an impartial manner, she said women needed training to gain empowerment, so as to increase their choices and opportunities. Although a national committee to implement the Beijing Platform of Action had not been established in the Palestinian territory, general women's department have been formed in eight ministries. A committee had also been set up to coordinate between the women's departments in the ministries.

Ms. Kamal said the authorities should upgrade organizational skills in order to involve women in development policies, train poor women to become self-reliant, assist rural women with respect to producing traditional crafts to meet market demand, modernize vocational training programmes and establish awareness campaigns on women's issues.

A representative of the Women's Affairs Technical Committee in Ramallah, Nahla Qourah, said her organization was established in 1992 to prepare for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It advocated equality in Palestinian society and the abolition of all forms of discrimination against women, with the aim of building a democratic society characterized by equality and social justice.

Achievement of those goals required networking between women and their institutions, lobbying for change, using the media, supporting and empowering women's institutions and organizations and addressing the practical needs of ordinary women, Ms. Qourah said. Among its great strides during 1996, the Committee had secured the right for women to acquire passports without consent from male guardians. Palestinian widows could now get passports for their children without male permission.

Moreover, as a result of the Committee's lobbying, married female pupils would now remain in school, Ms. Qourah said. In the Palestinian territories, where 7.9 per cent of the female population married before the age of 15, that was a major boost to female education. While the percentage of women in decision-making posts in seven ministries was only 14 per cent, that was an improvement over the negligible figures for last year. Owing to strong lobbying efforts by her Committee and other women's institutions, the draft Palestinian constitution emphasized the principle of equality of men and women.

Closing Statements

The Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, Ibra Deguene Ka, addressed the Seminar at its closing session. He said participants had expressed great concern for the future of the peace process, in light of the policies and actions of the occupying Power and the grave deterioration of the Palestinian economy since last year.

"Participants made it clear that the continuing closures, the fragmentation of the Palestinian territory, the land confiscations and building of settlements pose great challenges to the Palestinian people and its leadership", Mr. Ka said. "The need to confront the resulting hardships and economic damage on a daily basis make it nearly impossible to proceed on the road to development and to improve the living conditions of the Palestinian people in a way that would establish solid foundations for peace."

Participants had stressed that foreign occupation had to end before real development could take place, Mr. Ka said. "Many proposals were made for action in a number of areas, including legislation, data collection, measures to alleviate poverty, the expansion of training and social services, the empowerment of women, the establishment of a national sustainable human development machinery."

The Ambassador of Jordan, Maher Nashashibi, speaking for Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour, reaffirmed his country's continued support for and assistance to the Palestinian people until they achieve their full rights and national sovereignty. He also commended the United Nations and the international community for their role in addressing the situation of the Palestinian people.

The Palestinian Authority's Minister of Economy and Trade, Maher al-Masri, said the documents and discussions of the Seminar would greatly assist the Authority in setting priorities for the future.

"What we have achieved is remarkable considering that development is taking place under extremely difficult circumstances," Mr. Masri told the Seminar, stressing that the Palestinian territory could not become economically viable as long as Israel continued to isolate the West Bank from the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian Authority was still very young and much remained to be done, Mr. Masri said. "We need time and help to carry out our task successfully, but we are going to continue to establish institutions and to submit laws to the Palestinian legislature to govern our society."

The Amman Seminar was organized by the Palestinian Rights Committee to build on the economic and social seminars held by the Committee over the past four years. It was aimed at making a positive contribution to international efforts to promote the effective implementation of the Declaration of Principles, signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in September 1993. Participants included Member States, representatives of United Nations bodies and other intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations.

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