USAID supports girls’ education in the West Bank. The Agency built the new Nahalin Secondary Girls' School in the Bethlehem Governorate  / Credit Alaa Badarneh

USAID supports girls’ education in the West Bank. The Agency built the new Nahalin Secondary Girls’ School in the Bethlehem Governorate / Alaa Badarneh

It’s nearly impossible to watch the news or read a newspaper without hearing about the West Bank and Gaza. It seems every week there’s a breaking story of violence and destruction. And yet when I visited USAID’s West Bank and Gaza Mission in November, the message I consistently heard was one of hope.

I went to see first-hand how USAID’s diverse programs are helping to ensure women and girls have the tools and capacity to realize their rights. From the justice system to small business, it was inspiring to witness the positive impact of USAID’s work.

The trip was also a powerful reminder that gender relations in the West Bank and Gaza are unique and complex but also obscured by the ongoing conflict. The main challenge Palestinians face is occupation, being both physically and socially restricted in everyday life that we take for granted.

Susan Markham meets with USAID staff, beneficiaries, and partners to promote the importance of gender equitable structures, institutions, and infrastructure in Palestinian society. USAID/West Bank/Gaza

Susan Markham meets with USAID staff, beneficiaries, and partners to promote the importance of gender equitable structures, institutions, and infrastructure in Palestinian society. / USAID/West Bank/Gaza

While the physical roadblocks inhibit movement, there are also invisible barriers that Palestinian women face. Despite a commitment to girl’s education, and a long tradition of women’s engagement in political life, separate social structures and a male dominated culture endure. However, instead of being demoralized, what really shone through was the enthusiasm and determination of both women and men to fully engage on equal terms.

I was energized to meet Maysa, a 26-year-old entrepreneur breaking ground within the tourism industry. By organizing photography tours throughout the West Bank, running her own YouTube channel, and designing original souvenirs, she is staying at the forefront of tourism and opening doors to women who wish to work in the industry.

I spoke with inspiring women entrepreneurs who are breaking barriers within their communities and launching successful businesses in information and communication technology (ICT), marketing, tourism and international training and certification. Thanks to assistance from USAID, many of these women are already planning to start a second business.

Through USAID’s Local Government and Infrastructure Program, I was able to hear from young women participating in and leading Youth Local Councils across the West Bank where women and men work together to advance community driven ideas around education, health, infrastructure and governance.

Perhaps nowhere was progress in gender equality so evident than at the Youth Development and Resource Center in Hebron. There I met Omar whose parents forbid him to go to the center as a boy because there would be girls there. Today, he runs the center, providing skills training, work experience, and a dynamic example of what’s possible when men and women work together.

From the teachers fighting for improved training for their students to the women working in cutting edge technology fields, there was optimism for a brighter future and a fierce resolve to get there.Vera Baboun, the mayor of Bethlehem, summed up the experience best when she quoted poet Mohja Kahf to me:

All women speak two languages:
the language of men
and the language of silent suffering.
Some women speak a third,
the language of queens.
They are marvelous
and they are my friends.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Susan Markham is the USAID Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality & Women’s Empowerment. Follow her @msmarkham