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West Bank’s New Breadwinners

A program in ancient Jericho harnesses women’s talents to support their families

by Diane Handal

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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.

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Tags: Middle East Gaza Strip/West Bank Palestine Israel Jerusalem