UNICEF’s flagship annual report, ‘The State of the World’s Children’, focuses this year on the double dividend of gender equality, which helps both women and children overcome poverty. Here is one in a series of stories presented in the run-up to the report’s launch on 11 December.
MADABA CAMP, Jordan, 27 November 2006 – Sitting around a sunny classroom in the pre-school at Madaba Refugee Camp, 27 km west of Amman, the Jordanian capital, 65 children sing nursery rhymes, cheerfully clap their hands and stomp their feet. The walls of their classroom are painted a pristine white and filled with colourful posters.
In the classroom next door, children are watching a television cartoon. Outside, a small play area awaits them, complete with swings, slides and a seesaw.
This well equipped, child-friendly pre-school stands in stark contrast to the place where the children used to gather – a half-built, poorly lit room in an unfinished building. That room had no toys and was accessible only by a narrow spiral staircase with no banisters or metal grids to protect the unwary foot. Every day, the children would make their perilous way up those stairs, past cement slabs with protruding metal rods and nails.
In 2003, the local authorities decided to shut down the school. “I was devastated and felt there was nothing I could do,” says the school principal, Sara Sharif.
But there was something she could do.
Ms. Sharif is part of a deeply conservative and traditional community of 6,000 Palestinian refugees whose families settled in Madaba after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. After the school closing, she joined a UNICEF-supported community development programme where she attended workshops on communication skills, problem-solving techniques, women’s rights, community participation, grant-writing and networking.
Empowered by her newly acquired skills, Ms. Sharif realized she could make a difference and decided to take matters into her own hands. “I went out and looked for a ground-floor school. When I found it, I took out a personal loan and moved all of the kids there,” she said. “Now there are 80 of them!”
Agents of change
All the women who participate in the development workshops are encouraged to use their skills to become agents of change in their communities – for example, by organizing training sessions on health and rights issues, writing grant proposals for local projects and networking with government officials and other decision-makers. About 100 women have participated in the programme since it started in 2003.
It is clear that these women feel they have a mission and believe they are important members of their community.
As a result of their involvement, women at this camp are now attempting to assert their position in society and open dialogue within the family. In their workshops, they discuss such issues as guiding rather than giving orders to their children, advocating that girls not be married off at 15 and addressing topics once considered taboo, such as puberty.
A voice in the community
Besides supporting the workshops she attended, UNICEF further assisted Ms. Sharif by donating playground equipment, toys, a refrigerator and a computer to her school. In addition, she received health insurance for all her pupils and hearing aids and wheelchairs for those of them with special needs.
Ms. Sharif not only made a huge difference in the lives of the children she cares for; she also empowered herself in the process. Amidst a traditional community of Palestinian refugee families, she and other women are now able to voice their opinions.
“There are strengths and weaknesses in our characters, but we have come to learn through the community development process that there is a community out there, and we are and must be a part of it,” she says.