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WPS 21 years on: What are Palestinian women’s challenges and aspirations?

Twenty-one years after the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1325, Palestinian women remain the most affected by the conflict, and are still largely excluded from any efforts or processes to end the occupation. We spoke with feminist activist Sawsan Al-Shunnar about the situation of women in the occupied Palestinian Territories, and the most prominent obstacles facing the WPS agenda.

Palestinian women standing in a protest, holding signs calling for the end of occupation - Credit: GUPW
Written by
WILPF International
6 December 2021

Read this blog in Arabic.

On 25 October, The General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW) together with WILPF organised a side event of the annual WPS debate, which brought to the surface how gender-sensitive perspectives remain overlooked in the efforts to end one of the world’s longest-running and most contentious conflicts.

In the context of Palestine, the implementation of Resolution 1325 is of essential importance. Palestinian women, including young women, have the ambition and right to play a role in shaping a future that is peaceful and secure, and where they and their communities can thrive. However, they have to deal with several obstacles towards this goal.
Maryse Guimond - UN Women Special Representative

As a follow up to the event, we’ve talked with Sawsan Al-Shunnar, member of the General Secretariat of the General Union of Palestinian Women, the Palestinian National Council, and the Central Committee of the Palestinian Democratic Union (FIDA), about the situation of women in the occupied Palestinian Territories, and what needs to be done to support the implementation of  the WPS agenda.

What is the general context of the Occupied Palestinian Territories today and the challenges it poses to women in Palestine?

— The first context Palestinian women, and all Palestinian people, live in is a colonial context. In this context,  they struggle for survival and existence during one of the most difficult stages of the Palestinian cause. This colonial context is represented by the daily arrests of women and youth, forced deportations, deliberate killings, house demolitions and more brutally, forcing home owners to demolish their own properties themselves the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes, settlement expansion and land confiscation, the apartheid wall which hinders people’s lives, the withdrawal of permanent residency from Jerusalem residents including women, high taxes, and of course the siege of the Gaza Strip and the Judaisation of Jerusalem. All this falls under the policy of ethnic cleansing, which affects women doubly and contributes to the disintegration of the social fabric of Palestinian families. The second context is the state of poverty, the deteriorating economic situation, and the economic dependence on the occupation, which leads to the narrowing of job opportunities, and our inability to control resources – including water – or the movement of crossings and the transportation of goods and basic needs. This bears impact on the Palestinian family, and especially on the households headed by women.

The third context is the growth of obscurantist, conservative and tribal forces, reinforced by the occupation. These forces impede the adoption of laws that do justice to women and provide for equality and social justice.

The fourth context is the lack of political will from the Palestinian Authority to harmonise laws and legislation with international agreements signed by the State of Palestine freely and without reservations. An example of this is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which has not been harmonised with local laws and has not been published in the Official Gazette in order to become a reference for legislators and the Palestinian judiciary. Consequently, the legislative system remains incapable of meeting the equality and social justice standards we aspire to as women.

The fifth context is the political division, which is reinforced by the geographical separation of the Gaza Strip from the West Bank, and constitutes one of the obstacles to achieving a unified system and law for women in Palestine. There is a plurality of systems and laws; and on the whole, they do not meet the minimum rights we demand as a feminist movement.

The sixth context is the absence of a legislative council until now. Since 2007, we have not had parliamentary elections to choose representatives of the Palestinian people. Thus, there is an overlap between the authorities and a clear intrusion by the executive branch.

"The absence of a full fledged and sovereign governmental authority in all of parts of the Palestinian territories hampers the implementation of policies and initiatives that are needed to combat violence against women, even when there is a political will and desire to do so." ​
REEM ALSALEM - UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR ON VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN, ITS CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES

How do all these challenges directly affect the lives of women and girls living under the occupation?

— Everything we mentioned affects – for example – the freedom of movement for women, in light of the occupation’s military checkpoints and the lack of transportation networks that secure women’s access to various sites. This is followed, of course, by the freedom to work. Women think a thousand times in light of these obstacles, about whether work is gainful or not. In addition, a woman does not have access to services if she falls ill, for example.

Food insecurity follows. It is well known that the Palestinian society is mostly rural. The latest study from the MAS Center indicated that Palestinian women bear 87% of the burden of agriculture, and thus provide 70% of our food security. Palestinian rural women face obstacles in supplying water for agriculture. Moreover, not all drinking water is safe, especially in the Gaza Strip. Some areas also suffer from deficient electricity supply. We have heard numerous stories from women that make us feel that they are titans to withstand all these conditions. We have been told that the occupying forces open the gates to female farmers at specific times; and when they return with their yields, the soldiers sometimes confiscate and destroy them. This is in addition to the intense pollution that rural women, who constitute the majority of our Palestinian society, suffer from.

There is also an increase in incidences of trauma and discomfort. We have been on a trip to Gaza recently and we heard from feminists and women in general and felt the importance of psychotherapy. 

I would also like to refer to the human rights situation of women in Bedouin settlement areas, such as Khan al-Ahmar, Biddu of East Jerusalem, and Sheikh Jarrah. In the Bethlehem area, for example, we visited two villages that clearly illustrate the situation of these areas, where the soldiers open the water valve in the morning, and then close it whenever they want.

Of course, women in these areas are also exposed to doublefold violence. Whereas violence is practiced on their men at checkpoints, these men return to their homes and practice violence inside their households.

Palestinian women find themselves subjected to systematic violence, deprivation, poverty, and attempts to control them by internal and external forces. And if this situation continues and the hegemonic structure is not dismantled in order to put an end to the colonial activity…, it will be impossible to move forward.

Sawsan Al-Shunnar - General Secretariat Member at the General Union of Palestinian Women

In light of these challenges, what are the main obstacles facing the WPS Agenda in Palestine? How does the Palestinian civil society, especially Palestinian women activists, deal with these challenges?

— Peace and security for women is linked to the Palestinian people – including women – obtaining their independence, their freedom, and their right to self-determination, which is guaranteed to them by all international laws.

As the General Union of Palestinian Women and as feminist activists and research centers, we always face the issue of lack of trust between our society and the international resolutions, whether regarding Palestinian people or in general. For example, we have Security Council resolution 2334 of 2016, which considers settlements illegal. Yet till this day, we can see that settlements are still growing and their attacks abound.

The international community issues statements and announces its concern and solidarity with the Palestinian people. But people need to trust that there are measures to be taken, and that there is a commitment that war criminals will not go unpunished. People need to feel that the world is with them and supports them.

As feminists, we call for political participation, security and peace, and the goals of sustainable development. However, we see that one of our primary tasks is firstly to convey the voice and conditions of women to the world, and secondly to demand [from] the international community and our international friends a movement that shows us that they prioritise accountability and the safety and freedom of the Palestinian people.

The Israeli occupation is not being held accountable because we know there are double standards in UN resolutions. Some resolutions are implemented in certain places — armies are sent to implement these resolutions — while in Palestine, international resolutions are being transcended and this is our problem.
Rima Nazzal - General Secretariat Member at the General Union of Palestinian Women

Israel has recently banned a number of Palestinian organisations, citing anti-terror laws. How did you receive the news? And in your opinion, how does such an attack affect civil society and the implementation of the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda?

— One of these organisations provides services to women, and we know them because they are our friends and comrades; some of them work for children’s rights; and some provide health services. I don’t know what terrorism they are talking about.

So, the occupation not only impoverished us and took our land, but also restricted civil society from performing its natural role, restricted the democratic process, and deprived citizens and people of need and interest from receiving the services provided by these institutions.

The ban of the six institutions was met with tremendous societal solidarity, whether through marches and sit-ins or by sending messages to the United Nations and the Human Rights Council, and all international institutions that must know that these institutions are far from terrorism. The party that describes these institutions as terrorist is a country that was founded through terrorism on our land.

If it is proven that these institutions are prevented from operating, all of us will be under the threat of getting labelled as terrorist at any point in time.

For the WPS agenda, in addition to the main pillars – [including] prevention, protection and participation – we work on accountability. This prompts us to focus on how to use international mechanisms to expose what is happening in the region in terms of breaches of human rights and restrictions on civil work.

Women’s rights are human rights; and human rights are universal. No one can accept the claim that culture, religion, geography, or political affiliation determines which rights women are entitled to. The core problem is entrenched power structures preventing women from gaining access to their full rights. These power structures must be exposed and changed.
Erling Hoem - Deputy Head of the Representative Office of Norway in Jerusalem

Would you like to send any message to the international community regarding the situation of women in Palestine?

— We still believe in the importance of the role of all institutions in the international community. But we want more than condemnation and solidarity, we want measures to be taken as well. And we call for them not to leave us in the face of these attacks, in order to continue believing that we are not alone.

For more information, watch the recording of our recent side event, co-hosted by the General Union of Palestinian Women and WILPF on the sidelines of the annual UNSC open debate on WPS (Arabic or English).

For more information on the ongoing settlement crimes perpetrated by Israeli colonialism, which violate the human rights of the Palestinian people in general, and Palestinian women in particular, listen to the experiences of Palestinian feminist activists and researchers in this episode of the Arabic podcast series “Political Is Personal”.

Podcast name "Political is Personal" in a speech bubble, surrounded by illustrated faces of women
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Group photo at MENA inception meeting

About the author

Women are standing at the frontline of the movement for peace, justice, and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, but they encounter multifaceted barriers to meaningful participation in conflict prevention, resolution, and post-conflict transition. Read more about WILPF’s work in the MENA region

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Melissa Torres

VICE-PRESIDENT

Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani

VICE-PRESIDENT

Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo

PRESIDENT

Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

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WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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Demilitarisation

WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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