Mel Frykberg
Inter Press Service (IPS)
March 4, 2010 - 1:00am

The World Bank (WB) warned over a year ago that unless Israel eased its restrictions on movement and access in the West Bank the Palestinian economy would further deteriorate.

In February the WB released another report, ‘Checkpoints and Barriers: Searching for Livelihoods in the West Bank and Gaza, Gender Dimensions of Economic Collapse’. The report outlines the devastating impact Israel’s occupation has caused to Palestinians financially, and women in particular.

As many Palestinian men - the traditional breadwinners - have been imprisoned, killed or injured by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) Palestinian women have been increasingly forced to find new and novel ways to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads.

"High rates of unemployment and poverty have forced many women to become the breadwinners for their families due to many Palestinian men being imprisoned for political offences and unemployed," says Reem Abboushi, executive director of Asala or The Palestinian Business Women’s Association.

"Many women have also been widowed with large families to raise. Earning money can mean the difference between starvation and survival for these women and their families," Abboushi told IPS.

Asala, based in the central West Bank city of Ramallah, was established in 1997 as a micro-financing organisation aimed at empowering Palestinian women through financing their business ventures.

"We specifically chose to help female entrepreneurs because otherwise over 90 percent of our loans would have gone to men who have more business experience," says Abboushi.

In Palestine’s patriarchal society many women find it hard to get loans from the commercial banks as they are unable to provide collateral and few have business experience. The ownership of homes, land and buildings is mostly held by men.

Palestinian women’s participation in the workforce is among the world’s lowest, but it registered a slight increase during the period most affected by economic decline and rising male unemployment, from 14 percent in 2000 to 16 percent in 2007.

This period coincides with the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising or Intifadah when Israel launched a security crackdown throughout the West Bank. Israel’s separation barrier, which cuts through Palestinian land dividing villagers and farmers from their agricultural land, was built during this period.

Hitherto, tens of thousands of Palestinian men worked as day labourers in Israel. Now the vast majority are unable to get the requisite security permits from the Israeli authorities to work inside the Green Line.

Palestinian women have resorted to a multitude of survival strategies which include searching for jobs in the public sector and the services industry.

Home industry, including food production and other goods, selling or bartering food coupons, borrowing from neighbours and volunteering with charitable organisations, has also grown.

The WB report states that many women - in particular middle-aged and those with little education - have also turned to a range of informal activities. These comprise petty trading in Gaza, grocery shop-keeping, sewing, agriculture, and livestock production.

The difficulties the women have faced include unequal pay in low-status and unprotected jobs. The inability to get loans from banks, limited education, business inexperience and the restrictions placed on women in a patriarchal society moving in traditionally male fields have all added up.

However, while it has been very tough for the women both financially and emotionally, for some it has brought a sense of empowerment and independence.

"Democracy and gender equality will be brought to Palestine and Palestinian women through employment opportunities and the chance for economic self-development.

"We don’t need international donors spending millions on human rights and democracy courses for Palestinians," Abboushi told IPS.

"We have carried out surveys amongst our clientele. Ninety-five percent of the women found that they become more assertive in decision-making regarding finances following their new role as the breadwinners.

"This can have a positive effect on the entire home as women often use the money to purchase better quality food, clothing and household items for their families," explains Abboushi.

The women also found they became more involved in other decision making, such as who their daughters would marry, which had traditionally been the exclusive role of male family members.

"A new independence is forced on them as they have to go out and buy raw materials, bring the merchandise home and promote their goods. Many of them report a more positive interaction with their neighours and more respect from their communities in general," says Abboushi.

The Women’s Programme Centre in Gaza city is funded by Oxfam in conjunction with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The centre trains and employs Palestinian seamstresses from the refugee camps and donates the clothing they make to Gaza’s poor and destitute.

The 30 women and 14 men in the Gaza city centre, and another centre in the Shati refugee camp, work six hours a day, three days a week, earning about 240 US dollars a month.

"The programme has helped women from poverty-stricken families, where there is no breadwinner, to take home a modest salary to help support their children and men folk, most of whom are unemployed," Oxfam’s Elena Qleibo told IPS.

Sawsan Muhammed Daba, 49, has seven children to support. Her husband lost his job as a construction worker due to spinal injuries while her son was laid off from a local factory due to the closure of many business and factories in Gaza following Israel’s economic embargo of the strip.

"Now I am able to help feed my family. Coming to work also helps me, emotionally and psychologically, to get away from the depressing atmosphere at home," Daba told IPS.


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