“Change is starting to unfold in the Gaza Strip”, says Suhair Sakka, 37. “We’ve managed to set up five cooperatives in the Strip over the past two years. Each cooperative is operated by five women”. Suhair is the women’s projects manager in the Palestinian Union of Agricultural Work Committees, a non-profit focusing on assisting farmers in the Strip. “The cooperatives we helped start work in carpet-weaving and embroidery, textile and catering services”, she says. “Some have succeeded enough to take part in international fairs in Morocco, Saudi Arabia and other countries”.
Suhair Sakka is one of the four women from Gaza seeking to travel to the West Bank in order to complete their studies in human rights and gender studies. Suhair began her Master’s in gender studies at Birzeit University in 2000. However, following the start of the second Intifada in the same year, Israel introduced a ban preventing all students from Gaza from studying in the West Bank. Suhair was unable to continue her studies and never completed her degree.
Suhair, who has been working for the UAWC for the past 12 years, works to help women enter the local job market. “Although my first degree is in biology and natural sciences, I always knew I wanted to effect change”, she says. “I saw the status of women here compared to their status in other countries and I realized something can be done about it”.
Suhair is charged with running training and empowerment workshops for women and providing support for the establishment of small businesses operated by women. The aim is to train women and then help them enter the job market. Instead of helping women enter positions that are typically reserved for women, for example in cleaning, secretarial work or caretaking, Suhair is trying to help women lead and manage their own independent businesses.
In addition to helping individual women and their families, integrating women into the workforce brings with it extensive economic advantages. Kevin Daly of Goldman Sachs, for instance, argues that closing the gap between male and female employment in the United States can increase the GDP there by 9 percent. Closing the gap in the Euro zone and in Japan could increase the GDP of those areas by 13%.
In Gaza, while unemployment in the last quarter of 2011 stood at 30.3 percent, unemployment among women was 46.4 percent, compared to 27 percent among men. Suhair says that the male job market in the Strip has been negatively impacted over the past decade as Gaza residents can no longer travel to work in Israel. In this situation, she argues, it is vital that women enter the job market, and for new business sectors to be created. Many women, she says, have already looked to agricultural unions in search of work.
The challenges she faces are anything but simple. “The job market is still completely male-dominated and the society in the Strip is a traditional one”, she says. “The closure of the Strip also prevents economic development and the economic advancement of women is given last priority. This is one of the reasons we are focusing on women who are trying to provide for their families. Providing for their family also makes them partners in decision-making”. In spite of all the difficulties, Suhair says that signs of change can already be seen.