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Rural Women’s Development Society: Women’s Empowerment and the Building of Democracy in Palestine

January 2005

On Friday, January 14, Ghada Zughayar, the director of Rural Women’s Development Society (RWDS), joined a Grantmakers Without Borders learning call with a group of activists and donors to talk about the work of RWDS in the context of the January 9 presidential elections in Palestine.

From building local libraries to encouraging the participation of women in the recent presidential and municipal elections (as organizers and candidates), RWDS projects focus on enhancing the role of women in leadership positions throughout Palestinian society. RWDS, which grew out of the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee, is dedicated to women’s empowerment and rural development.

The presidential elections—along with the entire political process of designing the emerging Palestinian executive and legislative structures—was an excellent opportunity for RWDS to highlight women’s issues and the importance of women’s roles in making decisions about all issues of concern to Palestinian society.

“When Chairman Arafat passed away on November 11, people were very emotionally touched by his death,” Ghada said. “But at the same time they had very high expectation for free democratic elections after his death.”

In spite of the economic, political and security hardships that Palestinians face, the elections were remarkably free and fair. Women, men, and NGOs campaigned for the candidates, and, while some of the major parties (especially the Islamists) chose to boycott the elections, there was no violence between factions and no attempt by any element of Palestinian society to disrupt the elections.

Unfortunately, there were attempts by others to disrupt and influence the elections. Israeli attempts to sabotage civilized, democratic elections were embodied by a number of impediments during the process, Ghada relayed: The Israelis said they would halt military actions during the campaign and election period, but did not; the Israelis announced that checkpoints would be evacuated for 72 hours before the election, and people would have freedom of movement, but check points were manned and new checkpoints were erected (the Israelis even moved checkpoints and soldiers to avoid international observers, then increased harassment of Palestinians when the observers weren’t around). In addition, several candidates were harrassed and even beaten by Israeli officers at checkpoints, many candidates could not travel freely to meet with voters in east Jerusalem, polling places opened late, and several proposed polling places remained closed during registration period, preventing people from signing up to vote.

In spite of all this, and in spite of the everyday struggle of living with occupation and a shattered economy, the Palestinian people were still able to hold their elections.

“The Palestinian people are very proud of their participation,” Ghada said. “It was a distinguished, dignified, clean, open, free, well-organized election, with few irregularities.” She said it was an excellent model for the Arab world, where free, democratic, national elections are rare; in many Arab nations authority and power are inherited from one generation to the next.

The elections were an important opportunity to build a new political system based on plurality, and women’s participation was strong. Of some concern, Ghada said, is the fact that the mainstream party has remained in power.

“This consolidation is a threat to the nurturing of democracy,” she said. “When one man, one leader holds all the power, it means that less power flows to the institutions themselves. It can be dangerous for too much control to be concentrated in a few hands. That’s why it’s crucial that we create more space to build alternatives, so that true democracy can flourish.”

Ghada stressed that women’s groups will play an essential role in broadening the political scene in Palestine. Women’s groups have long played a great role in decision making, but have often been subjugated to only dealing with “women’s issues.” For the first time, over the last two years, women’s groups have begun to be successful in collaborating with other civil society groups, enhancing women’s roles in political parties. They have begun to play a role in constructing a broad range of policies, not just as consultants about women’s issues, but as part of the construction of overall platforms and policies.

One proposal that is currently under consideration is the reservation of a certain number of seats in the legislature for women. While this proposal makes its way through the labyrinths of parliamentary procedure, many women have already run for and won elected offices at the municipal and national level.

All of the women that RWDS backed shared a general platform, emphasized vast participation of women in decision making, defending democracy, protecting the environment, focused on agriculture, education, and health, and then they had specific practical demands that reflected the needs of the women and communities they were running to represent. Each candidate had meetings with her local community and did a needs assessment with local groups.

“And they tried at the same time to put women’s issues in a framework to make society aware that women’s issues are also men’s issues,” Ghada said.

So, what is the next step?

“I believe we’re still at the first step,” Ghada said. “We have to support the women who have been elected. I was very proud to hear some of the members of the women’s clubs saying, ‘The battle is not over, we must keep supporting our candidates, we have to show them solidarity and support them through their terms and their work.’ It shows a great level of political maturity.”

Recently, Ghada said, some members of one of the women’s clubs met with a group of delegates from Denmark. “One of the club members said, ‘Maybe we need men’s clubs now, because we have reached a point where we are fully aware of our rights as women. We just need to make the men aware of them.’”

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