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West Bank’s New Breadwinners

Palestinian women put their culinary skills to work

On a long table covered with plastic, a large bowl of flour and a red rolling pin crowd against an even larger bowl of lamb smothered in herbs. At the table, several women wearing polyethylene gloves, blue cotton coats and multicolored headscarves are making sambousek, meat pies, a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine.

Leading the group is Shadia Hamzeh, a 32-year-old instructor at the Y.W.C.A. in Jericho, the ancient city in the Palestinian West Bank. She teaches food processing and business management skills in the association’s food production program. This offers poor women from Jericho and the surrounding refugee camps — Aqbat Jaber and Ein Al-Sultan in particular — a chance to gain new skills and earn income for their families.

Most of her students are housewives who know a lot about cooking, but much less about the correct procedures needed for commercial sale.

Established in 2001, the initiative functions as a small-scale company, selling a wide-range of food products for profit through local vendors. The program also supports the local agricultural scene; only fresh seasonal produce grown by farmers in the Jericho region is utilized.

Putting to work what they know best, the women produce a number of traditional Palestinian dishes — sambousek, za’atar, kibbeh and shushbarak — as well as condiments and other basic items, such as marmalades, jams, syrups, honey, pickled and frozen vegetables, goat cheese and dried herbs. The project also assists the women with marketing their traditional handmade embroidered clothes, dolls and puppets.

In addition to the food production program, the Y.W.C.A. (which receives funding from a number of sources, including CNEWA) offers short-term training programs in computer skills and hairdressing. All programs prepare women for more active and economically independent roles in Palestinian society.

While the Y.W.C.A. program may be modest in size, the achievement it represents for Palestinian women — not to mention those directly involved — cannot be overstated. Gender stereotypes run deep in their traditional society.

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, only 14.1 percent of women ages 15 and older participate in the formal economy, as opposed to 67.8 percent of men in the same age group. Of those women employed, nearly half work low-paying service jobs. And, on average, all earn significantly less than their male counterparts for the same job, regardless of which sector.

For its part, the Y.W.C.A. food-processing program recruits women with the greatest need. In order to qualify, a woman generally must be the sole provider for her family. A recent study by Freedom House found that women head only 9.5 percent of Palestinian households, most of which rank among the poorest. Most often divorced, separated or widowed, selected women usually support children, parents, siblings or other relatives in addition to themselves. Still others have husbands at home who, for one reason or another, do not or cannot work.

“About three women arrive each week … most are turned away,” said Nazar Husari Halteh, executive director of the Y.W.C.A. in Jericho, about the number of new applicants seeking admission into the program.

A demanding one, it begins at 7:30 every weekday morning and takes three months to complete. For many students, following through means breaking with tradition and family restrictions.

“It is difficult and not common for them to leave home. The production of food is not easy, their husbands are not working and there is an issue of dignity [for the husband] when the wife goes out to work,” continued Ms. Husari Halteh.

“This creates negative psychological effects like violence, which persists in the camps,” she added.

Nevertheless, most of the women in the program make it to class. Fortunately, the majority of them have supportive families.

“[And] the Y.W.C.A. has a good name,” Ms. Husari Halteh added.

In learning the trade, the women gain self-esteem, independence and life skills.

“It has made a big difference in their behavior,” said Ms. Husari Halteh. “They have gained more independence and self-confidence. They can now make better decisions for their lives and for their kids.

“Life is school. When they meet people and have all these skills … this translates into a real empowerment through practice. They gain interest in politics and the news and their world is opened.”

Sensitive to the challenges these women face, staff members at the Y.W.C.A. do their best to provide a supportive atmosphere and to nurture their growth as individuals.

“It is very important these women have a sense of dignity — of belonging — that someone cares for them,” said Samia Khoury, who helped start the food production program when she chaired the Y.W.C.A. seven years ago.

These days, Palestinians desperately need jobs. Since the second intifada (or uprising against Israeli military occupation) erupted in September 2000, the West Bank’s economy has deteriorated. Unemployment has risen dramatically in recent years and now exceeds a staggering 30 percent.

While the causes of the West Bank’s economic woes are multiple, much of the recent decline is attributed to the extensive security measures Israel has taken to prevent violence — terrorism — in Israel proper. Israel has sealed its borders and installed military checkpoints and roadblocks at every crossing throughout the West Bank’s interior, restricting individuals’ movement and making normal business relations nearly impossible. Trips that once took minutes now eat up entire workdays. In some cases, Palestinians cannot get to a neighboring community without a special permit.

As a result, Palestinians living in the West Bank have been unable to trade or conduct business beyond its borders. And tourism, once a major source of revenue, has almost completely halted in places like Jericho.

The West Bank’s economic crisis has left none of its 2.4 million inhabitants untouched. Even the Y.W.C.A.’s small commercial food processing program has been affected.

For centuries, Jerusalem has been the hub of Palestinian cultural, economic and spiritual life. But in the last two decades, particularly since the second intifada, Israeli authorities have severed the city from the rest of Palestine, prohibiting the sale of Palestinian food products in Jerusalem. This has caused serious damage to numerous Palestinian industries, most notably the agricultural sector.

“We are not allowed to sell our products in Jerusalem without a permit from the Israeli Ministry of Health,” said Ms. Husari Halteh, “and we cannot get a permit because we are under the Palestinian Authority.”

Thus, for the Y.W.C.A.’s program, it has meant limiting the sale of its food products to West Bank markets.

“Products are sold to four or five stores in Jericho and Ramallah, one in Hebron and one in Jenin,” Ms. Husari Halteh said, adding that through the Y.W.C.A. in Jerusalem, products may be bought on occasion by association members or for use in its workshops.

For Shadia Hamzeh, the opportunity to teach at the Y.W.C.A. has been her ticket from a life of misery to one of dignity and independence.

Ms. Hamzeh entered the workforce right after graduating from high school. As a first job, she made and sold embroidered goods and beauty aids. But unable to support herself and her family with the meager earnings, she enrolled in a vocational training program, which helped her to land a job in a meatpacking factory in Bethany. But after the second intifada erupted, the factory closed and discharged its employees.

Out of work and with a background in entrepreneurship and food production, she submitted an application to the Y.W.C.A. when she learned of its culinary arts program. Brought on board as an instructor, she now earns enough to support herself, her retired father, an unemployed brother and a sister who is rearing two small children alone and without an income.

“I support my family of six on my [monthly salary of] 1,200 shekels ($375) along with my father’s pension of 1,600 shekels ($500),” she said. “We do not pay rent in the [Aqbat Jaber] camp, but we do pay for electricity, water, transportation, telephone, food and clothing.”

Without doubt, the program has improved the circumstances and future prospects for every one of its workers. For some, the change has been dramatic.

For one 37-year-old woman, the Y.W.C.A. program has given her and her family a new lease on life. Divorced with four children to support, this woman has overcome many hardships in her short life.

“I left my husband five years ago,” she recalled. “He was mentally unstable. He beat me and put cigarettes out on my arm and the kids’ hands.”

Unfortunately, this woman’s experience with domestic violence is all too common in the West Bank. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 23.5 percent of married women surveyed in 2005 reported to have been victims of physical abuse and 61.7 percent reported to have been victims of psychological abuse.

What is extraordinary is that this woman mustered the courage to divorce her husband after 11 years of marriage. In the mostly Muslim Palestinian territories, nearly half of all marriages are arranged. Divorce is highly discouraged and women who initiate it risk losing everything. Not only does Palestinian society generally ostracize divorced women, marriage laws tend to favor the husband in matters of child custody and alimony.

Obtaining a divorce because of domestic violence is especially difficult. The judiciary of the Palestinian Authority places a heavy evidentiary burden on victims of domestic violence filing for divorce or wishing to press criminal charges. For example, the plaintiff must present two eyewitnesses who are not family members.

This 37-year-old woman and her four children now live in a small dwelling with just one bedroom, a kitchen and bathroom in the Aqbat Jaber Refugee Camp. And while life remains difficult, she manages to support her family with the money she earns from Y.W.C.A.’s food production program.

“Coming [here] was a big move in my life. Before, when I cleaned offices and sold coffee, I made 500 shekels ($156), which barely covered food and electricity,” she recalled.

“I now have a better life and I am feeling good. The kids are happy and I am able to buy food and clothes,” she continued.

“I am relieved, comfortable and not ashamed of myself anymore.

“People respect me.”

Journalist Diane Handal covers events throughout the Middle East and Central Asia.

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