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Right to Education

Supporting Women in Education

Written by admin  •  Saturday, 30.07.2005, 09:45

Women’s education is under serious threat in Palestine, says Dr Hala Attalah Scholarship Fund co-ordinator Bassma Khoury.

The only way to ensure a well-educated female work force is to support young students financially now, so they can stand on their own two feet later.

Otherwise, with more and more men being forced out of employment or taken out of the community, through imprisonment or death, the future will look even bleaker, says Ms Khoury.

The economic situation is inducing some women to drop out of university and discouraging others from beginning courses, which makes the Dr Hala Attalah Scholarship Fund even more important.

“Under the current intifada the needs of women students are greater than ever,” she said.

“Due to the Israeli government’s closures of borders and villages, women students are unable to have consistent contact with their families to receive financial backup to buy the simplest of necessities such as dinner.

“Those who do not have the option of living at home are loaded with extra expenses such as rent, transportation and food.

“This can be a barrier for rural women’s enrolment and completion of higher education.

“In addition many family wage-earners have lost their jobs due to the closures and the strangled economy.

“This intifada has created a new kind of poverty in Palestine.

“Unemployment has been growing to a point where families can no longer sustain themselves to provide the simplest most basic needs for survival.

“In these hard times, expenses for education have become a luxury most cannot afford.”

Most Palestinian families concentrate on their sons, which puts girls at a major disadvantage when times are hard.

Women who come from rural backgrounds have to fight harder than anyone else to get the opportunity to go to university.

“Palestinians give priority to the male members of the family, because they think that the girls will get married and earn money for someone else’s family,” explained Ms Khoury.

“We focus on the rural areas because they are more conservative than the cities.

“To leave home is a big thing.

“These women are pioneers because it usually takes a lot of effort to convince their communities and their families that they can live outside the village.

“By helping them we can help their communities because when the Palestinian people are facing struggles, the women have to take over.

“In the poorest of the poor families, 11 per cent are headed by women because their husbands have died or are in prison.

“Without an education it is very difficult for these women to stand on their own feet and support their families.

“Their ability to find work is limited.”

As women comprise over 49pc of the population it makes sense to increase their earning power.

The scholarship fund aims to encourage women to study courses which will equip them for professional careers, such as law, engineering and information technology.

Unfortunately, many parents insist that they become teachers because this means they won’t have to mix with men at work.

“We do have a lot of girls studying history and geography and so on, because they are directed towards teaching by their families,” said Ms Khoury.

“This is a very low-paid job but their families prefer they don’t mix with men.

“Teachers are still a help to the community, but we are trying to diversify the women’s courses so they can do other jobs.”

The fund, which was named in honour of a former university counsellor renowned for her work with young women, has been running since 1996.

However, funding is drying up for full scholarships and Ms Khoury has been forced to shift the focus to providing other support for the students.

“We used to help 100 students a semester but now we help 20 students on a continuous basis and provide crisis help to many others,” she said.

“For example we buy them books, pay their utility bills for them if they are in trouble and help them if they can’t return to their villages because they have been closed.

“We try to fulfil the needs of the moment.”

She attributes the problem to donor fatigue and a misunderstanding about where funds presented to the university go.

The scholarship fund is financed separately from the university, so it receives only direct donations.

Yet money isn’t the only thing the women need. Sometimes emotional support can be just as important.

“We offer psycho-social counselling because these women face a lot of problems and they need to talk about them,” said Ms Khoury.

“These include violence in the family, forced early marriage and being forced to leave university.

“Sometimes we can act as mediators between the students and their families or we can teach them how to talk to their family effectively.”

There is no limit to the amount of support the institute offers women and when it can’t assist with a certain problem the women are referred to others who may be able to do so.

“For example, we adopted one victim of forced marriage who had to leave university,” remarked Ms Khoury.

“She has now come back to us divorced and with two children.

“We have been able to get her re-registered at the university and will be helping support her.

“She will start her studies again in the next semester.”

The strain of everyday life in Palestine can take its toll as well.

“The women have to do the run around just to get to university,” she observed.

“What should be a half hour journey can often take three hours and using 10 commuter cars just to get here.

“They are exhausted when they arrive and then they are exhausted when they get home late too.

“Sometimes they don’t have time to study.

“There are times when the Israelis block entrance to the university or the road to Ramallah and we all have to stay at the roadblock for two hours just to get in.

“It’s a very oppressive situation.”

Despite this the women and the university staff are determined to continue.

“Most Palestinians feel that we have lost our land, but our guarantee for the future is an education,” explained Ms Khoury.

“We are determined to keep going under all difficult circumstances and not lose sight of the qualities that have always distinguished us: our steadfastness and our urge for education.”

The centre also offers careers guidance, including advice on how to apply for jobs, interview techniques and even computer literacy classes to make graduates more employable.

Although it’s an uphill struggle, the success stories are what make it all worthwhile.

“We always want to keep in touch with our former students but we don’t want them to feel they owe us,” said Ms Khoury.

“But one particular student comes to mind when I think of success.

“She graduated last February and came from the poorest of the poor background.

“Her father had had a nervous breakdown and the family barely had food on the table.

“We helped her through her education and with other matters.

“After she graduated she couldn’t find work at first so we found her a job at the university cafeteria so she could at least make some money.

“But in June she found a job with the Indian consular office and when I saw her recently she was so excited because she was able to buy beds for all her family.”

Donors can sponsor individual students and receive updates on their progress, or donate to the fund for crisis support.

The cost of sponsoring a student depends on the course taken, but starts at about $4,000 (BD1,512) for four years.

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