Why Women's Empowerment Programmes are Still Needed in the Palestinian Territories

'The physical interruption of the territory has produced a huge gap between centre and periphery. Remoteness and isolation of local areas have, in turn, lead to a diminishing of the political power of marginalized groups and poor women, leaving them weak to influence decision-making and to form representative political aggregation. Their security and advancement is trapped between the Israeli occupation by one hand, and the constraints represented by a still strongly rooted male control of the society, by the other hand'.

by Carla Pagano  

The massive economic decline in the Palestinian Territories as a result of conflict and tight military closure, provoked humanitarian crisis, increase of poverty rate to 65.8 percent and unemployment rate of 28.9 percent (1), leading to a dramatic worsening of life standards in particular of Palestinian women and girls, and producing what has been called de-development (2). The last recent years following the election of Hamas in 2007, have been the hardest of the Palestinian history, either for the relapses over the internal political assets or for the impact on the international relations.   Palestinian women have always been an example of struggle and organization against the occupation power and the traditional male power, and have engaged along the years in a variety of aspects, such as access to education for girls, combating gender-based violence, women's economic and political empowerment, gender equality within the law.

A Ministry of Women's Affairs was created in 2003, Gender Units were set in all Ministries, the Institute of Women's Studies was established at Bir Zeit University, in 2008 PNA ratified CEDAW, in 2009 a Palestinian Women's Bill of Rights was drafted, in March 2010 a law punishing the honor crime was promulgated, a Gender National Strategy and a National Strategy to Combat Gender Based Violence are being drafted by Ministry of Women's Affairs. Although this clearly shows the progressive action of the Palestinian institutions for the improvement of women's status, there remains a critical gap between the legal framework, and the effective implementation of laws and regulations to advance women's status at different levels.

Data about presence of Palestinian women in the Institutions make clear that it is among the lowest in the world. Female participation in the Palestinian Legislative Council is 12.9 percent, in the municipalities 18 percent, only 11.2 percent of judges and 12.1 percent of prosecutors are women. The social and civil statutes record inequalities for women regarding divorce (unilateral for men), polygamy (4 percent), girls' early marriages (14 percent) (3). While there are no substantial differences in the participation of girls and boys up to the secondary schools, only 7.6 percent of young women hold a Bachelors or higher degree. This reflects in the economic life, where female labour market participation is only 15.4 percent (4). Informal work (5) involve 6 out of 10 women. The labour market is clearly divided by sex: women have access to limited typologies of jobs, often located outside the areas of economic growth, unable to absorb a growing employment demand. In addition, a lack of adequate infrastructure to relief the burden of domestic care on women represents another reason of non-access to the formal labour market.

In the fragmented Palestinian context, there exists a combination of law systems, from those inspired to western codes, to the Shariía, where is particularly strong the application of the Family Status Law, thus lacking a unified Family Law. In West Bank, this is based on the Jordanian Code, in Gaza Strip on the Egyptian Code, while to the women resident in Jerusalem is applied the Muslim Family Law in Israel. The inhomogeneous legal framework produces a whole of discriminations against women, characterized by limiting their access to the law, especially in terms of legal protection, and advancing opportunities such as equal salaries, right to maternity leave, retirement, protection from harassment at work, social security. Official data about sexual violence are very alarming: 61.7 percent of married women have been exposed to psychological violence, 23.3 percent suffered physical violence, 33 percent have been raped in 10.9 percent of cases by their husband or by a member of the family. In this complex situation, besides the efforts of the Institutions to combat gender-based violence, the Palestinian women's movement is intensively working on the interpretation of the Shariía, in order to redefine in a gender perspective issues such as the marriage, the divorce, the custody of the children, the inheritance (which in the majority of cases entail discriminations against women), also considering, although this inevitably causes divergences, the so-called 'informal justice', that is the codes involving the sulh (6) and the customary law, which is devolved only upon men, and the possibility to dialogue with the men islah (socially entrusted of conciliation among the parties) for the resolution of disputes.

If assuming that the concept of empowerment refers to the process by which those who have been denied the ability to make choices (7) acquire such ability, Palestinian women are still very disempowered: Palestinian women and girls are the main target of the conflict in terms of diminishing of access to services of reproductive health, increase of care work, scholastic drop out of the girls, diminishing of socializing opportunities, exposition to violence and insecurity. The physical interruption of the territory has produced a huge gap between centre and periphery.

Remoteness and isolation of local areas have, in turn, lead to a diminishing of the political power of marginalized groups and poor women, leaving them weak to influence decision-making and to form representative political aggregation. Their security and advancement is trapped between the Israeli occupation by one hand, and the constraints represented by a still strongly rooted male control of the society, by the other hand. Both the systems produce violence, impeding the full exercise of women's agency and rights, and marking inescapably their future. That is why there is still a strong need to continue, intensify, and support local and international programmes for the empowerment of the Palestinian women. Especially in the remote areas, where inequalities more evidently concern women's access to political, social and economic power, and where women particularly are affected by the closure and the difficulty of movement, it is necessary to seriously integrate gender mainstreaming in the development processes at all levels, as a fundamental tool to consider the perspectives, the differences, the opportunities, and the responsibilities of women and men in all development and humanitarian aid initiatives.

This implies to explore gender issues in sectors such as infrastructures, politics, social aggregation, culture, and economy, which only apparently may seem to benefit the population indistinctively in the cooperation framework. In this sense the efforts of Palestinian institutions, of local and international development agencies to protect women from discrimination and abuse, should focus on how to bridge the gap between central and peripheral areas, on how to link the advancing legal framework with the daily life of women in the marginalized areas. Only by promoting the full exercise of womenís right to citizenship thus defining as a priority women's human rights in the process of construction of the social, political, economic justice in the Palestinian Territories the sexual difference and the experience of women, in my opinion, would be valorized and put at the centre of the political and development practices.

Carla Pagano is a scholar in Arabic-Islamic cultures and works as independent Gender & Development Adviser for public Institutions and Research bodies.

Notes

(1) World Bank, West Bank and Gaza: Economic Developments and Prospects, March 2008.

(2) The interrelation between the forced capture of economy, a relation of dependency imposed, and the obstruction of the free development of the civil institutions. Sara Roy, The Gaza Strip: the political economy of de-development, in International Affairs, Oct., vol. 72, n. 4.

(3) Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, Palestine in facts and figures, 2008. Data about polygamy and divorce differ in every Arab Country. In a recent article, Valentina M. Donini (Polygamy and Family Law, in Reset DOC, April 2009, http://www.resetdoc.org/story/00000001317) reports that 'according to a reformist interpretation, both polygamy and repudiation would not be admissible in the Arab world today, as the circumstances and reasons justifying them no longer exist in the current historical context'. Today only Tunisia has officially abolished polygamy and repudiation.

(4) Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, Press Release 'On the Eve of the International Population Day', 17/07/2009.

(5) ILO defines the informal work as reflecting the characteristics of the work in lack of adequate social protection, underpayment, violation of fundamental human rights.

(6) A method for the solution of disputes based upon the conciliation which takes into account the whole of social norms, tradition and religion.

(7) Naila Kabeer in 'UNRISD Discussion Paper 108', Development and Change, Vol. 30 (1999), 435-464. Institute of Social Studies. Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1999.

 

Photo credit: PalFest