Building Women's Leadership in Palestine

Gaining independence and strength through food sovereignty

A version of this piece originally appeared in Response: The magazine of women in mission.

The Women’s Empowerment and Food Sovereignty Project in Palestine, sponsored by Grassroots International and implemented with our Palestinian partner the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, works to bring practical, locally controlled food projects to various communities in the West Bank.

Heavily subsidized, imported food and food aid undermines Palestine’s farming economy and creates food dependence. Confiscation of Palestinian farmland and barriers to farmland access create tremendous hardship for farmers. Food sovereignty, on the other hand,offers a different path. By promoting and building a thriving, locally controlled, family-based Palestinian farming sector, food sovereignty offers a path toward Palestinian self-determination and control over their own land and resources.

The Women’s Empowerment and Food Sovereignty Project provides a pathway toward food sovereignty for low-income Palestinian rural women: practical, locally controlled food projects that generate income and produce healthy food through ecologically sound methods that sustain and protect community livelihoods—all hallmarks of the global movement for food sovereignty.
 
But perhaps more important, these projects are dynamic catalysts for developing a new generation of women leaders, uniting them in a common struggle for their rights. The project has begun to focus also on the broader goal of spreading food sovereignty as an accepted concept in Palestine and heightening awareness of how food sovereignty can not only feed but promote and defend the autonomy of the Palestinian people.
 
Engaging community
The project offers hands-on activities that promote women’s engagement in leadership development, local agriculture and food sovereignty, including distributing 1,700 olive seedlings to 29 women’s cooperatives in 2013. The same year, 62 women in four districts attended training sessions on cooperative management and gender, and 31 women participated in training sessions on building advocacy skills for women’s and farmers’ rights. As a result of the training, there was a marked increase in participation by the women in advocacy and campaign events such as International Women’s Day, the olive harvest campaign and International Water Day.
 
The project also offers assistance and training to women’s agricultural development enterprises, providing leadership and vocational skills, project management, marketing and establishing a cooperative model.
 
“Being a member of this women’s cooperative is so much more than learning technical skills, which we do,” said Zeinab Mo’han, member of Beitin Women’s Cooperative in Palestine. “But we also learn about how to engage in discourse, how to negotiate, effective communication skills and, just as importantly, the role of the rights to land, food and water in our national struggle.”
 
The main beneficiaries of the Women’s Empowerment and Food Sovereignty Project are low-income rural women who attend trainings and who are members of various local committees that collectively form a network of agricultural work committees. They gain leadership and advocacy skills, learn how to organize for their rights, help elevate the status of women, gain practical and theoretical training in setting up and effectively running income-generating enterprises and raise nutritious food while generating needed income.
 
Just as the women benefit from the project, so do their families and communities—both in terms of the food produced as well as the positive modeling of self-determination and empowerment for women and farmers.
 
Project staff members promote a cooperative model in all aspects of the work. This is seen as key to stopping the fragmentation of Palestinian society and ensuring that projects are community-led and firmly rooted in the beneficiaries’ realities. The women’s committees include five to seven women selected for their knowledge, previous experience in the target areas, leadership skills and volunteer involvement.
 
With regard to the economic projects, the committees conduct baseline surveys in partnership with project staff to assess the family and community needs and monitor outcomes. The needs assessments ensure that the women are closely involved in developing the projects. The committees are a vital link between the beneficiaries and the project staff.
 
A key aspect of the work is to reshape public opinion—through training, advocacy, organizing and media work—to prioritize local agricultural production as a sustainable way to feed the population, and pressure Palestinian authorities to adopt food sovereignty policies promoting organic, local, sustainable agriculture and to limit imports of steeply subsidized agricultural products, which undercut locally produced food.
 
Changing women’s status
Project coordinators found that empowering rural women and enhancing their role in society brings them closer to attaining greater social and political rights. Strengthening participants’ leadership, advocacy, organizing and employment skills through the cooperative experience and through mobilizing for food sovereignty in Palestine is helping to unify the bonds of solidarity among the women and is fostering a stronger sense of empowerment.
 
The project aims to increase women’s leadership in their communities while improving the standard of living for women farmers and strengthening their rights to land, water and food. It plans to continue building vibrant models of food sovereignty through the project’s successful women’s agricultural development enterprises, such as olive production, bee-keeping, poultry-raising and vegetable gardens. Technical assistance will continue to be provided, training and education on gender issues and leadership, along with spreading the practice of food sovereignty by amplifying the voices of rural women and farmers as they advocate for better agriculture and food production policies in Palestine.
     
External challenges
In addition to the economic and cultural barriers faced by women in the region, residents of the West Bank face enormous challenges imposed by military law.
 
“Early last year, the occupation authorities demolished five sheep hangars, confiscated tractors and agricultural water tanks and left notices for house demolitions,” said Ryiad Sawafta, a farmer in the Jordan Valley village of Bardala. “[They are] preventing farmers from having access to their agricultural land after sunset. In addition to that, Palestinian farmers are under continuous harassment from the Israeli military occupation forces at the military checkpoints during their transport of agricultural products.”
 
Palestinians live under layers of laws that affect where they can live, how much water they can use and which roads they can access, among other things. Despite these obstacles, Palestinian farmers remain steadfast in their commitment to the land.
 
The constant threat of military action and the harsh economic situation sometimes makes the project’s goals hard to achieve. That’s why the support from United Methodist Women members is so important. Despite the challenging climate, the economic cooperative projects are creating self-sufficiency for the women over the long-term and contributing to the slow, hard work of making even Palestine a place where all God’s children can thrive.

This article is gratefully adapted from the April 2014 issue of
Response: The magazine of women in mission. The Women’s Empowerment and Food Sovereignty Project in Palestine is supported by a grant to Grassroots International from United Methodist Women.