Palestinian women stymied by suppressed employment opportunity
Despite having higher levels of education than their male counterparts, Palestinian women suffer from one of the lowest rates of female participation in the workforce in the world, according to a report by the Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka.
Less than one in five women residing in the Palestine Territories are employed full time, says Samia Al-Botmeh, a policy adviser with Al-Shabaka and an assistant professor in economic studies at Birzeit University. This compares to an average of one-in-four women in other Arab workforces and just over one-of-two women throughout the rest of the world.
This despite the fact that Palestinian girls have higher rates of primary and secondary school attendance and are less likely than their male counterparts to drop out of the educational system before graduation.
The low rate of employment is believed to be a primary factor leading to greater incidents of poverty in the West Bank, an issue that has been acknowledged by Palestinian politicians. “There was a decision to raise the minimum wage to 1,475 [Israeli] shekels per month [about $390],” Zahira Kamal, general secretary of the Palestine Democracy Party, told The Media Line. “The raise has benefitted women more because many were only making 600-900 shekels [about $160 to $238], where men received 1000 shekels [about $264]. In Israel, though, that same minimum wage is 4500 shekels [$1200], but we are buying with the same prices as in Israel,” she said.
Kamal blames Israel for what she argues is an ongoing cause of low employment rates among women: the inability to travel around the West Bank to work due to Israeli army checkpoints. “We can't go from one place to another, the West bank to Jerusalem, for example…We need to end the occupation,” she said, adding that tourism, too, is an industry with great economic potential that is being stifled, leading to even lower employment among both male and female Palestinians.
Jumana Salous, a program manager at Business Women’s Forum, also identified obstructed travel due to checkpoints as a limiting factor for employment, but added that, “most jobs are here in Ramallah.”
Salous did not lay all the blame at Israel’s feet. She explained that most of the employers in the Palestinian Territories, “are male and prefer to hire men because they are seen to come without family obligations and restrictions on working hours,” she said.
Such cultural mores are hard to change but according to Salous, progress is being made. To underscore her point, she points to a project at the Bank of Palestine that stipulates an equal number of women and men must be hired – a scheme which has led to a number of women in senior management positions.
Salous’ organization, the Business Women’s Forum, is seeking to add to this with a project aimed at developing female entrepreneurs. “We provide the business development services. We have more than 200 women registered in the forum. Many of the women work in textiles, handicrafts, food and services sectors,” Salous explained.
However, it’s not guaranteed that free movement or even a change in attitudes would solve all of the problems for female workers. When there is a shortage of jobs, it is often the case that those that are available are filled first by men.
Al-Shabaka’s Samia Al-Botmeh believes that the root causes of the struggling economy and the subsequent lack of employment opportunities for women in the Palestinian Territories stem from an over-dependency upon the Israeli market. Al-Botmeh points to the economic imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians, arguing that the $5 billion in imports from Israel and its reciprocal total from the West Bank of less than one-half billion pales as insignificant in comparison to Israel’s over-all imports of $90 billion.
Botmeh also argued that the anti-Israel “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement benefits the Palestinian economy and the issue of women’s employment. “In light of the fact that Palestinians are restricted from conducting ‘normal’ economic life under occupation…a significant opportunity for expanding the productive sectors arises from replacing imports of Israeli goods and services by local production.” Therefore, Al-Botmeh went on to argue, “the boycott of Israeli goods is a form of economic resistance that helps revitalize the productive sectors, hence women's perspective employment.”
Ultimately, the Palestinian Authority has limited scope to deal with all of these issues, according to Kamal. “The PA is unable to unilaterally change Palestinian cultural tendencies or economic dependency or Israeli army policy,” she said, explaining that, “The PA is an authority without authority. We are in a very complicated situation that has consequences for more than just women and girls.” In Kamal’s estimation, “When we talk about women, it is also a problem of the whole Palestinian people.”
Robert Swift contributed to this story.