Girl Power in Palestine

By EA Ann, Southern West Bank.

Grassroots initiatives in the villages of the South Hebron Hills in occupied Palestine are improving life for girls and women, especially through education.

The area is both remote and conservative, and it is still unacceptable to many families for girls and boys to be in the same class after the age of 11. Many girls drop out of the system where there is only a co-educational school. Long cross-country walks to school are also a disincentive, especially where the route passes close to settlements where Israeli settlers prone to violence live.  Parents worry about all their children making such journeys, but especially about adolescent girls.

Education has always been a high priority for Palestinians however: once acquired no-one can take it away, and an educated population is seen as a major resource for the future. Some 80% of students at the Open University in Yatta are female. In Al Karmel (on the outskirts of Yatta, the largest city in the South Hebron Hills), only two women attended university in 1981, but now there are more than 400.  In that community there used to be some 400 marriages a year of girls under 16, but that has now shrunk to between 10 and 20.  The women’s project associated with the youth centre in Al Karmel has over 300 members. It promotes many different educational courses, and works to achieve some financial independence for women.

Further into the countryside, the Rural Womens’ Association exists “to enhance the resilience of women in marginalised and remote regions and to raise their voices to the world” – with activities ranging from embroidery workshops and sending a delegation to the US Congress, to lobbying against home demolitions by the Israeli government.

Fatma Nawaja, director of the Rural Womens’ Association, with Naima Hathaleen and children from Susiya and Um al Kher, meeting with US Senator Feinstein [Photo: Rebuilding Alliance]

Fatma Nawaja, director of the Rural Womens’ Association, with Naima Hathaleen and children from Susiya and Um al Kher, meeting US Senator Feinstein [Photo: Rebuilding Alliance]

The village of Zwedeen already had a secondary school for girls, but only to Grade 10 (aged 15). Last year several pupils wrote a letter asking for two additional classes.  An international fundraising effort culminated in the formal opening ceremony in September for two new classrooms.

The celebration ceremony [Photo: EAPPI/A.Davison]

The celebration ceremony for the two new classrooms at Zwedeen [Photo: EAPPI/A.Davison]

Cutting the ribbon to open the new classrooms at Zwedeen [Photo: EAPPI/S.Bedringaas]

Cutting the ribbon to open the new classrooms at Zwedeen [Photo: EAPPI/S.Bedringaas]

The school is still short of material resources but it has enthusiastic teachers, and pupils bursting with ambition. All those I spoke to at the opening ceremony have their sights set on university.

Teachers of English, Arabic and Maths at Zwedeen school [Photo: EAPPI/A.Davison]

Teachers of English, Arabic and Maths at Zwedeen school [Photo: EAPPI/A.Davison]

Meanwhile villagers not far away have initiated a project to provide an entire secondary school for 100 girls. Research some six years ago showed this as a high priority for the community. They have now clubbed together and bought a suitable piece of land. Yatta Town Council agreed that its engineers would survey the site and prepare it, mobile classrooms are being sourced, an NGO has promised a toilet block, the Palestinian Authority will provide school furniture and teachers, and further resources and equipment will come from another international fundraising effort.

Site for new girls school, levelled by Yatta Town Council, ready for mobile classrooms [Photo: H.Qawasmeh]

The site for the new girls school, levelled by Yatta Town Council and ready for mobile classrooms [Photo: H.Qawasmeh]

The site is in Area C under the complete control of the Israeli authorities, where building permits cannot be obtained.  The solution? To deposit mobile classrooms on a prepared site during the night so that the entire school is a “fact on the ground” by daybreak (the phrase “fact on the ground” is more usually associated with the Israeli description of their settlements – it is harder to remove something that already exists).

The explicit aim of the project is not just to bring school qualifications to the girls but to create a pool of educated girls who “can make their own choices regarding their lives and careers, family life and education”. In other words, to enable them to be “agents of change in their own community”.  As the project proposal states, achieving gender equality in conservative areas is not an easy task but change will not come from NGOs. It comes from the girls and their families themselves and that is exactly what is happening here in the South Hebron Hills.

Take action box 2

You can find out more about some of the projects to build new schools here.