It is 6.30 a.m. in the West Bank, part of the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), and Istethkar Abdelkarim has already been working for two hours. And yet she couldn’t be happier.
Decades of conflict, border blockades and severe restrictions on movement and access have left the Palestinian economy crippled. Unemployment is rampant, food is expensive and feeding a family is a constant challenge. And yet women’s vital contribution to the family income here has long been rare. The proportion of Palestinian women who are fully employed is among the lowest in the world.
This is particularly the case in the territory’s more rural areas, where traditional mindsets are stronger, access to services more difficult and work opportunities extremely limited because of the socio-economic and political situation.
Yet in 2010 Istethkar, along with 200 rural women from the West Bank, decided that it was time for action. Supported by the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education and UN Women, with funding from the Government of Norway, they have put their skills to vital use in the running of school canteens.
Istethkar now prepares healthy meals, which she sells at a subsidized rate to some 400 hungry schoolgirls, who once paid much more for their lunches. These meals include her special stuffed chicken and musakhan, a spiced chicken dish, she reveals with pride. This activity has revitalized her family and its finances — particularly, she says, when her husband lost his job. “It helped me psychologically as well as financially,” Istethkar explained. “I never had my own income before, and we always depended on my husband’s.”
Now, in the poorest communities in the West Bank, meals prepared by local women entrepreneurs like Istethkar feed almost 70,000 schoolchildren. And by ensuring that the children eat nutritiously, the women are effecting life-long change for those around them, too. According to Zein Hamad, dietician with the Palestinian Ministry of Education, certain health problems, such as anemia — which significantly handicaps children’s learning ability — and obesity, have dramatically reduced in the area since the women started their work. The anemia rate has plummeted from one-quarter of all children, to just a handful.
Alia El-Yassir is the Head of the UN Women occupied Palestinian territory office, which is supporting this women-run school canteen project. She says that it is crucial to improve children’s nutrition to a level that can ensure their academic achievement, rather than simply focus on calories. She also believes that the project’s snowball effect is transforming not only individuals but also families and communities. “The number one priority that we’re hearing from women and communities is that they need income, a source of income that somehow they can depend on,” she says.
Samah Mousa, who acts as the regional coordinator for this project, specifies that many husbands had first resisted the idea of having their wives working. But many eventually appreciated their wives’ new roles as they started to generate an income for the household. Some even help with the work.
Ahmed Suleiman, Istethkar’s husband, says that he now relishes his wife’s new entrepreneurial role and her position as economic head of their household. After he lost his job he was able to open and run a shop, thanks to his wife’s earnings.
“She now helps in every aspect of life,” he says. “Through her work in canteens she contributes financially, even supporting our children in college, too, because I couldn’t pay the cost of tuition on my own. I’m very proud of my wife because she does her job, and more.”
Istethkar is also pleased at her own efforts, and the transformation that the project prompted. “I used to be shy [when] dealing with people, but I got stronger and more self-confident,” she explains. “I’m hoping my work will continue and get better, and that I will work all my life.”
For Istethkar and the 200 women like her, this new economic independence offers them and their families a ray of hope for the future in this troubled land.