Keeping women safe: campaigning for women's rights in Palestine

How are women’s lives affected by one of the world’s
longest-running conflicts?

International Service’s youth volunteers spoke to Maha Abu Dayyeh, Director of the Women’s Center for Legal Advice and Counseling (WCLAC).

WCLAC originated in response to the first Palestinian uprising 1987-93 (known as the Intifada). "We had curfews for forty days, food shortages, no electricity. We started getting reports of increased domestic violence. People were suffering from poverty and feeling frustrated. Women were more isolated and closed up inside for long periods of time."

And so WCLAC began offering legal aid and counselling to women.

Volunteer Lucy interviewing Maha Abu Dayyeh, Director of WCLAC

After the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1993, WCLAC had to reassess its role.

"There needed to be gender-sensitive legislation, and we were the only women’s organization offering legal aid. That is when we started our advocacy work."

"The biggest challenge is having to re-invent yourself"

Abu Dayyeh explains, "you develop strategies given the political realities, and overnight things change."

Following the Second Intifada (2000-05), WCLAC began focusing on empowering grassroots organizations across Palestine.

But despite the ever-changing background, WCLAC has continuously raised awareness about domestic violence.

"In our culture, and every culture, domestic violence is a private matter.  We said that if there is violence within the family, it’s a public health issue and it’s a public responsibility. You just don’t turn your face and say we can’t interfere. 

It’s been a long journey from non-recognition of domestic violence, to having a Palestinian Authority that adopts this issue as a matter of national policy and has a committee to combat violence against women. We can take credit for the large part of this work."

WCLAC is now a well-established voice in Palestine, but many challenges remain. Families are driven apart and women lose their traditional support networks.

"Things like taking your kids to school and accessing healthcare are a major effort. If you are a mother and you need to take your kid to a health centre, then you have to cross a checkpoint. You don’t know if your kids are safe going to school, or whether they will be harassed. You have to think, will they come back safely?"

Maha Abu Dayyeh is adamant that these difficulties make the role of organizations like WCLAC all the more crucial.

"There is a perception that women in Palestine, like women in the rest of the Arab world, are helpless creatures. They are not helpless. They have a powerful agency for change."

Pointing to the example of women leading demonstrations in Yemen (2011-12), she explains "the more you feel injustice, the more you feel the need to fight it. That’s why in all struggles for social justice women are usually at the forefront, because they bear the consequences of injustice."

Abu Dayyeh believes WCLAC has an important role in planning for the future after the end of the conflict in Palestine.

"We keep pushing. We need to keep struggling for a better life.
Living under occupation means we always have to mitigate our aspirations, but we know that most of all what women want here is to feel safe."