RUWOMED and the economic empowerment of women in rural Palestine and Lebanon
Nedaa Salama’s PowerPoint slides are captivating but I don’t want to look at them. As she addresses the full room of researchers, policymakers, project leaders and media representatives in her native Arabic, I only have eyes for her. I’m at the European Commission in Brussels, attending a session called “Building Bridges at the EU’s External Borders” that has been organised as part of the European Week of Regions and Cities.
From the voice of the interpreter through my headphones, I know that Nedaa is speaking about how she and a group of other women in her Palestinian village have become empowered thanks to an EU-funded project called RUWOMED. Though I don’t need the English-language interpretation to understand this; it’s abundantly clear from the confident, unwavering voice she’s using to tell her story. Here is a woman who knows her own strength and the power her words are having on us.
Nedaa tells us about her life as a housewife in Kafr Malik, a village located in the northeast of Ramallah in the West Bank. She’s a mother of 5 children and before joining RUWOMED, her life was mainly preoccupied with household chores. Now, thanks to the RUWOMED project, she and several other women in her community have become entrepreneurs and valued members of their village. They have learned the agricultural, business management, accountability and marketing skills to become apiarists (beekeepers) who produce their own fairtrade honey.
The RUWOMED project was funded with €1.7 million under the Mediterranean Sea Basin Programme. Responding to a deteriorating socioeconomic environment in the Palestinian occupied territory, the project aimed specifically to promote the sustainable socio-economic development of and cooperation between women in the Mediterranean Sea Basin. Funding was provided to existing and new economic ventures run by women in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as in refugee camps in Lebanon. As part of the project, women learned skills related to starting and managing a small business by engaging in practical workshops and cross-border networking activities in Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and Spain.
Nedaa is not the only woman to benefit from the RUWOMED project. Muntaha Bairat, also from the village of Kafr Malik, noted that “we suffer from isolation in Palestine, but this opportunity has given us the energy we need to keep working.” Naema Hamayel stated that the RUWOMED project “has allowed us to empower ourselves, to get out of our homes and not be just there cleaning and making food, but to go out and be leaders in our community.” This is a significant step forward in a place where women in the workforce face discrimination and a general perception that women’s work is secondary to male labour.
“[The RUWOMED project] has allowed us to empower ourselves, to get out of our homes and not be just there cleaning and making food, but to go out and be leaders in our community” — Naema Hamayel
Nedaa points out that “Palestinian women have a lot of capabilities and potential which is underused and they need help to be able to use their potential to reinforce their self-sufficiency and self-confidence.” RUWOMED attempted to address this by giving these women the opportunity to earn their own income and by creating events and platforms by which these women could interact with other entrepreneurs and potential customers — both in their local community and internationally.
“Palestinian women have a lot of capabilities and potential which is underused” — Nedaa Salama
The project has also provided Palestinian and Lebanese women with the opportunity to dream bigger. One producer from Kafr Malik, Eibtijah Alieibtijah Ali, wants to build a house for her family, something that would not have been conceivable prior to her involvement with RUWOMED. Eeman Bakir from the village of Arura in the West Bank is now able to pay for public transport costs for her daughters to attend university. The repercussions of this project will not be limited to a single generation.
When she’s asked how the men in Kafr Malik reacted to the changing roles of the women in their village, Nedaa admits that she and the other women “didn’t get full support from all of the families” in the beginning. But once the project got off the ground, “reactions changed and became much more positive.” She uses her own husband to illustrate the shift in sentiment. After the group’s first harvest amounted to 157 kilos of honey and it was apparent that the women were successfully applying the skills they had learned, he realised that it was an opportunity and a positive development for the community.
Kafr Malik is just one of many communities that RUWOMED has worked with. A total of 9 groups (each consisting of 3–7 women) and 44 female producers in the West Bank were supported by the project. These groups have been engaged not only in beekeeping but also in greenhouse production, mushroom production, the cultivation of medicinal herbs, sheep farming and dairy product processing. In the Gaza Strip, 30 individual women producers engaged in baking, mushroom cultivation, dairy manufacturing, catering, couscous production and apiculture were supported. RUWOMED also supported rural women’s cooperatives in Lebanon, as well as existing groups of female Palestinian producers in Lebanese refugee camps.
In spite of the successes the RUWOMED project has achieved, the women involved face challenges every day that entrepreneurs living in peaceful and politically stable regions have never had to deal with. Wesam Al Amawi’s catering business that was established under the RUWOMED project was destroyed by the Israeli military during the war in the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014. Yet these challenges make what these women have achieved under RUWOMED all the more incredible.
Nedaa Salama and the other women in Palestina and Lebanon are now equipped with practical skills that have enabled them to become valued members of their communities and acquire valuable entrepreneurial skills that will be passed on to future generations. RUWOMED certainly made it possible for them to realise their potential but these women are the true heroines of this story. The key pillars espoused by the project — socio-economic empowerment, utilising existing know-how, the benefits of working together, fairtrade and cross-border cooperation — should absolutely continue to be promoted in all cross-border regions.