Elevating and empowering women’s voices in Palestinian gatherings in Lebanon

[Individual articles from the Spring 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD) is a grassroots, rights-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that aims to promote gender equality and the rights of marginalized groups, especially among the Palestinian gatherings in Lebanon. [Gatherings are communities of Palestinian refugees outside the twelve United Nations-administered refugee camps for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.] Palestinian refugee women living in Lebanon are deprived of many basic human rights and face multiple difficulties, including but not limited to insufficient education, limited reproductive health services, unemployment, low socioeconomic status and discrimination stemming from both their status as refugees and their position as women. PARD places a special emphasis on empowering women by identifying and redressing power imbalances and providing them with more autonomy by procuring access to healthcare and education, environmental health and sanitation services and community awareness and advocacy trainings.

Approaching gender issues using a culturally relevant and sensitive approach is essential for good relief and development work in any setting, but particularly so when working in a context where addressing gender issues is extremely delicate. Such is the case for the communities in which PARD operates. In these communities, one cannot address gender issues directly. It therefore becomes not only necessary, but deeply advantageous, to adopt a gender-mainstreaming approach, understood as “the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes, in all areas and at all levels” (UN Office of the Special Advisor on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, 2002).

For the past thirty years, PARD has worked in the Palestinian gatherings in Lebanon and has consequently garnered a significant amount of trust and respect from both the gatherings’ governing bodies and the individual inhabitants themselves. PARD believes that the acceptance and relationships it has built up are essential components of its work: without the communities’ trust, PARD would not have the access or ability to address gender issues to the degree that it does. In contrast, other NGOs have sought to carry out programs in the Palestinian gatherings around gender-related issues such as family planning, gender-based violence and early marriage, but they were not invited or welcomed by the communities, because these NGOs lacked the trusting relationships that PARD has fostered with residents of the gatherings.

Despite PARD’s success and far-reaching work related to gender issues, these efforts have encountered some resistance. PARD has had to exercise a high level of creativity in the ways that it helps educate and empower women as it implements its programs related to gender equality and justice. In one example, a local sheikh (a Muslim religious leader) approached a PARD staff member and told her that she could not hold a scheduled session on family planning. To work around this restriction, the staff person decided to host a session regarding children’s nutrition instead, making the topic more acceptable to local community leadership, while still being able to incorporate ideas about family planning, gender rights and women’s empowerment into discussions about household nutrition. As the assembled women discussed malnutrition and healthy lifestyles, the PARD community worker spoke with these women about the difficulties of providing for ten children without having an income and thus integrated family planning concepts in a culturally appropriate and indirect way that was better-accepted and understood.

Another integral component of PARD’s work in addressing gender inequality is working with local Women’s Committees in the gatherings. These Women’s Committees are made up of women who have undergone PARD’s comprehensive training program aimed at strengthening decision-making and problem-solving, in which participants acquire skills relevant to their individual, familial and community needs. Participants learn how to carry out community mapping, conflict mediation, needs-assessment and advocacy for their rights as women and as refugees. Women’s Committee members also serve as a community alarm system, help shape and implement relief and development projects and serve as spokespeople to the male-dominated Popular Committees that govern the Palestinian gatherings.

The Women’s Committees in these gatherings differ from the Popular Committees in several ways. Firstly, the Popular Committees are composed almost entirely of men, with few exceptions (and even when women serve on the Popular Committees, they are typically not integrated successfully, nor taken seriously). The members of the Popular Committees are appointed by political parties. The Popular Committees were not originally receptive to the idea of Women’s Committees: even today, the relationships and the levels of coordination and cooperation between the Popular Committees and the Women’s Committees vary depending on the gathering. In some gatherings, heavy competition over governing authority exists between the Popular Committees and Women’s Committees. While the Popular Committees are on paper the governing bodies in the gatherings, in practice the Women’s Committees have more influence and can even overrule the Popular Committees: so, for example, the Women’s Committee in the Jim Jim gathering forced through a plan against the will of the Popular Committee to construct a road with the help of an engineer from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

As it carries out its work in the gatherings, PARD coordinates closely with the Women’s Committees, given that their active involvement in project development and implementation is essential for the success of PARD’s relief and development programs. PARD staff meet with each Women’s Committee at least once a month and are available to meet more frequently if necessary. As the women serving on the committees are themselves members of these communities, they already have knowledge and insight into the issues facing the gatherings and can significantly influence and shape the projects that PARD undertakes. PARD supports and empowers women in these communities by providing training-of-trainers opportunities to help women become social workers and undertake fieldwork themselves (e.g., conducting needs assessments and community mapping exercises, developing action plans and advocacy campaigns, etc.) The Women’s Committees thus play a significant role in the development and design of projects as well as in the monitoring of projects.

In addition to its programmatic focus on gender mainstreaming and its work with Women’s Committees, PARD also utilizes an operational framework to address gender equality and women’s empowerment with three main dimensions: capacities and education, access to resources and opportunities and security. The first of these refers to capacities as measured by education, health and nutrition, elements fundamental to an individual’s well-being and the means through which women can access other forms of well-being. Access to resources and opportunities, the second dimension, addresses equality in opportunity to use or apply basic capabilities through access to economic assets and resources, as well as political opportunity, because without to access to economic and political opportunities, women’s ability to employ their capabilities for the well-being of themselves, their families and communities will be limited. Security, the third dimension of PARD’s gender equality framework, refers to reducing women’s vulnerability to violence and to conflict that results in physical and psychological harm, violence that diminishes the ability of individuals, households and communities to fulfill their potential. Moreover, violence directed specifically at women and girls often aims at keeping them subjugated through fear.

PARD recently underwent a gender audit, which in turn led to some noteworthy organizational changes, including the revision of PARD’s bylaws for women’s protection and the institution of rights regarding maternity leave and work leave for menstruation. According to Lebanese law, women are given seven days annually off work for menstruation; PARD changed its practice to go beyond the provisions of Lebanese law, allowing women to claim up to twelve days a year for menstruation leave. Additionally, Lebanese law permits women 40 days of maternity leave, but PARD extended this to 60 days and decided to give women an hour for breastfeeding at work as well.

PARD’s operational framework for gender equality not only paved the way for changes to the organization’s bylaws, but also has helped to assess PARD’s organizational culture, policies and efforts to examine organizational leadership through a gender lens. PARD has found that if women are in power, not only are their voices heard, their voices are louder. Having a critical mass of women both in leadership and in field work positions gives greater voice and attention to women’s issues within PARD’s work. PARD employs 60 women and 14 men, all belonging to the communities targeted by PARD’s relief and development efforts. These women hold key leadership positions at all levels of the organization, including executive director, chief accountant, program coordinator, community health workers, kindergarten coordinators, psychosocial activities coordinator and project leaders.

PARD believes that women’s empowerment is crucial for sustainable development and human rights for all. Gender-mainstreaming is at the forefront of its holistic approach to addressing gender issues in a locally-driven manner, influenced by PARD’s partnership with the Women’s Committees. When women are empowered, whole families and communities benefit, and these benefits have ripple effects for future generations.

Paula Holtzinger is MCC’s emergency response assistant for Lebanon and Syria. Rita Hamdan is the executive director of The Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD).

Learn More

The Popular Aid for Relief and Development. The Popular Aid for Relief and Development Annual Report 2017. Beirut: PARD, 2018.

United Nations Office of the Special Advisor on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women. Gender Mainstreaming: An Overview. New York, 2002. Available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/pdf/e65237.pdf

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