Biddiya, occupied West Bank - A team of fewer than ten employees and volunteers are making a huge difference to hundreds of women across the northern West Bank area of Salfit and Qalqilya.
Women For Life (WFL) is an independent, non-profit Palestinian organisation that works to combat violence against women and empower them in all aspects of life - legally, socially, economically and politically. To do so, WFL implements programmes and develops partnerships that support violated women, enable women to attain their rights, promote gender equality and provide women with opportunities to advance in society.
Formerly known as Woman Against the Wall, the organisation, based in Biddiya, began in 2002 as a group of Palestinian women practising non-violent resistance against the erection of the separation wall. Through demonstrations, camp-outs and rallying, the women succeeded in diverting the wall by 3km, and in doing so saved a school from demolition.
Fatima Assi, director of WFL, told Palestine Monitor how, in the beginning, the organisation was confronted with scepticism from the local community. “People are not open-minded like they are in big cities such as Ramallah, so it was a challenge,” she said. Over time, through word of mouth, the organisation has garnered local acceptance. Fatima reported that she knew she was on to something when fathers began bringing their daughters to workshops. “We let our actions speak for themselves. People began to trust us.”
One of WFL’s missions is legal empowerment. The organisation has its own lawyer and helps over 100 women per year in court cases against their husbands. Na’ila from Masha is one of the women to have received legal support from the organisation. She shared her experience with Palestine Monitor:
“One day, my husband told me he wanted a second wife. In the beginning, I accepted it but then there were complications. Four days before he got remarried in 2014, I found out I was pregnant with my second child. After his marriage, my husband became distant. He stopped living with me and stopped supporting me financially.”
Like many women seeking help from WFL, Na’ila didn’t complete her secondary education and while her daughter is still young, she is not working. WFL helped her to take the matter to court free of charge. “When I went to the court, I didn’t have enough money to pay for the taxi. I had to sell my jewellery to support myself and my children,” she recalled. “After the court case, my husband pays 900 shekels (approximately USD 240) per month in alimony and child support.”
Such cases remain rare in small Palestinian villages. “I don’t know anyone else who had a divorce or a problem with their husband. It’s not a normal thing but I was forced to. I didn’t do anything wrong. What I did is best for my children and me. Women For Life stood by me when nobody else did,” Na’ila said.
WFL’s social worker, Leila, admits that court cases are a last resort for the organisation. “Being a divorced woman in this society is very difficult for a woman. Here in Palestine, a divorce is not just between two people; it’s a breakup between two families.” Leila therefore opts to work on the social side as a first port of call, offering couples’ sessions to help resolve marital problems. “The sessions are very successful,” she says.
“Our aim is to empower women and give them independence but sometimes families interfere with a divorced woman more. Here in Palestine to be independent and powerful you have to have your own work. If the woman works, she can be independent,” Leila said.
The female labour participation rate in the occupied Palestinian territories as of July 2016 was 19.6 per cent, which remains very low compared to 25.2 per cent in the middle east and north africa and 50 per cent in other developing countries.
In 2013, WFL partnered with Première Urgence Internationale to implement the Women Economic Empowerment project, which included assisting local women in setting up their own micro and small businesses in order to sustainably contribute to the socio-economic empowerment of women in the region.
Funded by the European Union and cofounded by Agence Française de Développement and Muslim Care-UK, 600 women applied for the scheme and a panel of local organization representatives whittled down the final number to 60 women from nine local communities across Salfit and Qalqilya.
The selection was based on a number of specifications including the applicant’s motivation and how their project matched the market’s needs.
Successful applicants went on to attend a 10-day business-training course and received on-going mentors and support to bring their projects to fruition.
Project grants were provided in tools and equipment rather than a lump sum, with approximately 2000-3000 euros being invested depending on the project. The beneficiary was asked to provide 10% of the money.
The 60 women’s projects represent a diverse range of business categories, among them agriculture, commerce, handicrafts, livestock, cosmetology, acoustics techniques, gyms, photography studios, tailoring, bakeries and DJ services.
In Biddiya, Mariam Aqraa used to work from home but thanks to the project has opened a shop mainly selling sweets and gifts for weddings and events.
“We were taught about budgeting, customer service and recording finances. Women For Life provided everything you can see here – the shelves, the table, the air-conditioning, even the door! I’m so grateful - this project improved my income so I can better support my three disabled children. I still communicate with the society when I need advice in managing my project,” Mariam said.
Over in Azoun, Fadwa Shbeta has set up her own organic green house in which she currently grows and sells cucumbers, beans, lettuce, celery and parsley.
“My husband is very supportive of the project and made me the owner of the land. Women For Life helped me to build the greenhouse and provided me with tools and products. People like that my produce is organic. I feel very fortunate. Now I can help to sustain my family,” Fadwa said.
In Kifl Hares, Izzya Saleh had been running her own bakery in a small shop for four years when she heard about the project that she states changed her life: “Before, the bakery was so small that it was hard to breathe from all the smoke. The project supported me to expand the shop and build a new bread furnace. My husband’s income is limited so it’s a big difference having my own work. I feel more self-confident now, I have met new acquaintances through the bakery and I can expand my business by hiring employees.”
Despite the tangible success of this project and many others, WFL struggles to sustain itself. “The main problem is permanent finance,” Leila conceded. Working for WFL for ten years, she considers the organisation a part of her family. Even though the organisation cannot always offer her a salary, “It’s OK for now,” she says. Regardless of concerns for the future of the organisation, volunteers conveyed that they enjoyed their work as it gave them a role in society. Fatima Assi added, “We work from our hearts, we have a passion about what we do. I think we make an impact.”