Empowering women and strengthening communities in Palestine

Since June 2004, Samah Jaouny, a Palestinian UN Volunteer, has worked as a programme assistant with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). She works to mobilize and increase Palestinian women's participation in the social, economic and political life of their communities and empower them to become agents for change.

Empowering women in rural areas is an essential component of the sustainability of communities in the occupied Palestinian territories. The women I meet with in rural villages want to make a difference, to improve their future, and to gain greater security and meaning in their lives.

As a UNIFEM programme assistant, I have focused on two rural clusters of women in the northern part of the West Bank: Talfeet, a small village situated in the northern Governorate of Nablus, and Allar, a small town in the Governorate of Tulkarim.

Through UNIFEM's programme, women receive educational and vocational training courses, computer training, and Tawjihi classes for women who had to drop out from their schools and were unable to finish their education. Moreover, they participate in awareness workshops, language training courses, lectures and seminars, and so much more.

Palestinian women face major difficulties due to the hardships imposed on them by the Separation Wall and the closures that have affected their lives in general. For example, Allar's main source of revenue at one time was agriculture, yet today people from the village are unable to reach their crops, or to sell their products because of the surrounding Separation Wall that cuts them off from their lands and from other towns. Moreover, those who work in other cities of the West Bank and the 1948 areas are prohibited from reaching their work because of the wall and the imposed closures and checkpoints. Likewise, the residents of Talfeet are unable to reach the closest city to the village, Nablus, because of a main checkpoint that separates the city from all its surrounding villages. Add to that, the villagers in Talfeet suffer from water constrains that disable them from growing anything that they could generate income from.

Nevertheless, the women of Allar and Talfeet are still hanging on to a better future. They are determined to help and support themselves and their families. My first priority was to improve their vocational and educational levels in order to help them find means of income generation. Revitalizing the women's centres and helping them in holding women's committee elections were the first steps, the second was to assess the women's needs, and then to prepare an action plan that corresponds to the different needs of each community. The activities we have done in the centres have created a new sense of hope in the village. The centres have also become a community hub were people meet, learn about each other, resolve their differences and develop together. I am proud that our centres have created a real difference in people's lives; they have influenced everyone who's involved. The women's election for example was something the women have never experienced before.

The latest and most important activity that I helped organize was the celebration of the International Women's Day, where women from all ages were asked to volunteer their time and effort to make the event a success. Other women centres and women committees from different villages joined in the celebration. There was singing, folklore dancing, poetry reading, and plays. Women from all walks of life and of all ages took part. It was a great day!

Undoubtedly, I would not have been able to initiate these projects in Allar or Talfeet without the will of the women - their drive and dedication has made these projects possible.

Moreover, being a UN Volunteer has brought me closer to the women I work with. As a volunteer, it is easier for me to encourage others to volunteer their time and skills in order to help one another. Self-sustainability and independence is a goal we should all strive for.