On the occasion of the International Women’s Day, celebrated all around the world on the 8th March, we publish the interview made to Mrs. Nadia Harb, a woman rights and gender equality activist who has supported a variety of initiatives to empower Palestinian rural women socially, economically and politically.

She is the General Director for the Rural Women Development Society, RWDS, since 2009.

She participated as a key speaker in the CEMO Seminar: “Rights of women in rural areas in Palestine from the perspective of cooperation” organized by the Social Promotion Foundation in the Arab House in Madrid on 28th June, 2018.

Rural Women Development Society (RWDS) is one of the local partners of Social Promotion Foundation of the Agreement “Contribute to improving the resilience of vulnerable rural communities in West Bank and Gaza to enable their access to rights in a sustainable and equitable manner” This agreement, among other goals, promotes the accesability of rural women to natural resources and the improvement of their productive and institutional capacities through access to agricultural production and techniques especially through cooperatives. In the framework of the new agreement, public awareness about gender equality and access to rights will be incited. This agreement is funded by the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID).

FPS: Which is the role of RWDS in Palestine?

NH: RWDS has a strong and respected presence among grassroots rural communities, with over 3,000 female members that form a network of 58 women’s clubs. It is this unique structure, geographic breadth and large core of dedicated volunteers that distinguish RWDS from other Palestinian women’s organizations.

We advance the rights of rural women by fostering empowering and supportive spaces within their local communities. This is achieved through clubs, which highlight women’s invaluable contribution to Palestinian society, and through designing innovative projects on the topics of economic empowerment, political and social participation, and the prevention of violence. We use education and community participation, as well as mobilization, skill-building, and advocacy as tools to develop women into strong, committed and able leaders.

FPS: Why is it so important to empower women in this context?

NH: Although women fight side by side with men in all political and social struggles, and despite the fact that the Palestinian president has signed up to the entirety of international agreements that espouse justice and equality for women, (such as: CEDAW, which demands full equality between men and women in all areas of life, and UNSCR 1325, which calls for the protection of women during armed conflict and for the participation of women in all negotiations that aim to end war and conflict, among other agreements), these agreements have never been enforced including the amended version of the Personal Status Law and the law on family protection from violence, among other laws.

RWDS continues to work on empowering rural women economically through supporting them as individuals and groups by facilitating agreements between women’s cooperatives and private sector companies, to ensure better working conditions and that their products are marketed. Further, RWDS worked on increasing the participation of women in mixed sex cooperatives and ensuring their access to decision making positions.

We have joined forces with activist women’s groups in campaigning for the implementation of the Minimum Wage Law and the enforcement of laws that protect women’s rights. We actively contributed to the preparation of the shadow report assessing the government’s performance on the CEDAW agreement and played an important role on the strategic plan on gender for the Ministry of Local Government, and the strategic plan for the Forum for Countering Violence Against Women.

Meanwhile, RWDS continued to coordinate and build networks with women’s institutions in the Arab world and neighboring countries. For example, we joined the network of “Ro’a”, which allows us to exchange experiences and pursue fairer laws in the light of a similar cultural structure.

FPS: Which are the “women clubs” and how they are changing the rural communities

NH: Our women’s clubs are at the heart of our work. Since 1987, RWDS has established 58 clubs throughout the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, offering unique spaces for women to gather, learn, organize, and work together.

Each RWDS club is a semi-autonomous community-based organization (CBO) with its own operational structure and system. The clubs focus on activities that respond specifically to the needs of women in the local community, while membership in the RWDS network creates opportunities for clubs to participate in larger projects and political campaigns.

FPS: Working with RWDS, which is the achievement you are most proud of?

NH: One of the most touching ones for me is the work done in Bethlehem, economically and socially empowering 20 women in Al Walaja providing them with the necessary inputs and knowledge in farming and garden design through recycling and employing environmental friendly practices. With this, they were able to use what they were producing and prepare healthy and nutritious food and providing the necessary income to grant them economic independence, which is also a catalyst for social empowerment.

FPS: Could you tell us a moment in which you really felt that the work of RWDS was improving the personal lifes of women?

NH: One of our successful stories is the one of Rasha Hajajelj, she is from Al Walajeh Village, located south west of Jerusalem and an active member of our women’s club there. We first met her when she was participating in one of our project receiving training in recycling and up-cycling. She then attended several workshops in organic agriculture and food processing, in addition to landscape design. This knowledge brought her to design her own garden using old car tires.

“With my effort and my family support, what I produce in my garden has allowed us to become self-sufficient, since we don’t need to buy vegetables from the market, which is a relief especially since my husband cannot work due to an accident. I treated natural diseases affecting the crops with a chemical-free product, producing organic vegetables that are safe for my family to consume. I want now to expand the work in my garden and require support to cultivate on a larger scale”.

Rasha is very artistic and has several other skills including making natural soap using the herbs she grows in her garden, which can be used in the treatment of skin problems though using natural and chemical-free ingredients. Her garden has become an attraction for visitors from Palestine and abroad alike, and images of her garden have been exhibited abroad – something that has reflected positively on her village and the surrounding areas. At the end of 2017, Rasha received a grant from RWDS and PARC to develop her home gardening business to reach other women by replicating this project in other areas and helping them in designing their gardens.

FPS: What would you tell someone that do not believe that women can play a key role in decission-making?

NH: We have many models and examples of Palestinian women who had succeeded and are true leaders, giving the women the tools and support needed, we can play an important role in decision-making