28 August 2003 Edition

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Palestinian women lead the way

BY ÁINE Ní BHRIAIN

The Palestinian Working Women's Society (PWWS) is an independent, non-profit organisation dedicated to empowering Palestinian women.

The group was first established in 1981, and it now has bases in Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem, Toulkaren, Jineen and the Gaza strip, and this past month during the West Belfast Féile, two of its representatives were in Belfast.

Fadwa Qourah and Nawal El Haj attended the Woman of the Year award to show their support for Irish women and raise awareness of their society's work.

The PWWS's primary objectives are much the same as many women's groups; to advocate women's rights, to provide social services to even the most marginalised, and to empower women to participate in the decision making process.

But what makes the society unique is that it also educates women with respect to claiming their legislative rights, provides a specialised counselling programme, encourages women to influence the policies of public and private institutions, and defends the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to establish their independent democratic state.

The ambitious project has an endless list of initiatives and goals, all of which are designed to educate and empower women and their families.

For example, the PWWS was the very first women's organisation to initiate counselling services, which it began in 1993.

Since then, the programme has expanded. It aspires to initiate changes in traditional concepts and the image of women within society. It also provides oppressed women with social support, combats violence against women in all its forms, raises public awareness of women's needs and priorities, and pushes for legislative laws that would protect women's social rights.

The Society not only handles individual cases - through face to face counselling - but also provides support groups, an open phone line to provide any needed assistance, and workshops and seminars within communities.

It has also developed a civil education programme, which promotes women's participation in different sectors of public life in Palestine and the decision-making process.

This programme works with 95 different women's groups throughout the villages, camps and cities of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Its objectives are to raise the legal and juristic awareness of women pertaining to their rights, promote notions of a democratic society, raise supportive public opinion for women's rights as human rights, and highlight violations against women based on gender.

Since 12.4% of women are working within the public labour sector, the PWWS has made a concentrated effort to educate those women, due to the absence of a trade union. This target group of working women suffers regular exploitation by the public labour sector and there is no structure to deal with their needs or defend their rights.

In addition to their many valuable activities, the PWWS also cooperates with other women's organisations in an effort to break down barriers between women. It is the society's desire to reach out to other women and cultures that allows it to benefit from the experiences and outlooks of others, and as part of its vast list of ongoing projects, the PWWS has developed a programme to develop children's mental capacity and defend children's rights.

The children's programme implements an unconventional approach to dealing with child behaviour and physical development needs. It teaches children to read and encourages them to continue to develop the habit. It also pays special attention to the emotional and physical needs of each individual child and offers support for children who suffer from social and physchological problems. It encourages and develops child creativity and raises health awarness regarding children, their families, and the local community.

The PWWS has also taken a special initiative.

The "Chain of Solidarity and Compassion" has a number of aims, all designed to offer help and support to needy people in the spirit of solidarity and national belonging.

It wants to consolidate the notion of give and take by building a self-supportive societal system that relies on human and material local resources as an alternative to foreign aid.

This society is just one way that the Palestinian people, and particularly Palestinian women, can confront the abusive policies and poverty that have been forced upon them and lessen the plight of poor marginalised people in remote areas.

If you are interested in helping with this highly worthwhile cause, are curious about how their approach could assist through your own women's group, or wish to find out more, you can contact the PWWS through their website at: www.miftah.org


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