Oxfam's Enterprise Development Programme is providing training and marketing assistance to five cooperatives across the West Bank, reports Caroline Berger.
As the muezzin's dawn call to prayer fades, a group of women flock to the main square to sell their Palestinian delicacies. It's Ramadan and people are busy stocking up for the feast. Here on the outskirts of Ramallah, a group of enterprising women have set up a burgeoning cooperative and become role models for other women in their community.
Beaming proudly, Elham Sa'ah, head of the cooperative, invites me into her modest supermarket. Jars of dried grapes, thyme, dried tomatoes and homemade aromatic honey line the shelves, testament that Palestine is still the fabled land of milk and honey.
Elham Sa'ah explains she was able to set up her own small income generation project with the help of Oxfam's Enterprise Development Programme which is providing training and marketing assistance to five cooperatives across the West Bank. Since receiving a loan from Oxfam's partners, Economic and Social Development Center of Palestine (ESDC) and New Farm Company (NFC), the cooperative has expanded and there are now more than twenty women.
Last March the cooperative set up a beehive enterprise. Elham Sa'ah explains, "The ESDC helped us with technical assistance and training from spraying the beehive, to learning how to cultivate and package the honey."
For Elham Sa'ah, honey is deeply interwoven into her childhood memories. As a girl she watched her father tend to the family beehives, a trade passed down through generations for the past eighty years. She remembers:
"My family never expected me to learn how to look after the bees. Sadly, my father has died before he could see this but I think he would be very happy and surprised by the change."
Elham Sa'ah laughs as she remembers her husband's initial reaction.
"My family thought I was crazy and that the bees would sting me! At the beginning my husband made jokes when I went for training. Before the men were very strong but now we are telling them what to do!"
With marketing assistance from the New Farm Company, who purchase the products at competitive prices for sale to customers, some of their goods have been exported as far as Saudi Arabia and are sold in 50 supermarkets across the West Bank.
The majority of the women in this co-op work part-time to earn additional income for their family. However, N'ama Ka'aga, aged 62, is the main breadwinner in her family. She explains:
"Before this we had no income but now with the help of Oxfam and local NGOs we have the opportunity to educate our children. I have seven children and this additional income helped us to pay for their first semester of university. It makes our economic situation much better."
There is an infectious resilience and resourcefulness amongst these women. Despite initial opposition from the men in the community, these women are reversing the gender roles and proving that they have the power to change things.
"There isn't a clash with the daily demands of running a family", said Elham Sa'ah. "Now I have more responsibility and more pressure but at the same time the community respects me and this feeling makes it all worth it. I feel empowered in my community."