At the end of November, members and friends of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty took part in a ten-day delegation to Israel and Palestine. We visited Palestinian activists resisting the Israeli occupation, Israelis supporting them and workers’, women’s, youth and left organisations in both countries.
On the last leg of our delegation we were invited to the Second General Conference of Women for the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU), who organise around 300,000 public and private sector workers.
Despite the pressing injustice in the West Bank it is a testament to the PGFTU that women’s liberation remains a priority.
17 percent of PGFTU members are women; (women make up 14.8 percent of the labour force). The union seems to be making real ground with women workers internally too; women run over 90 per cent of projects. They have also run progressive campaigns that positively affect the everyday lives of women.
In the 1996 run up to the Palestinian Authority elections, PGFTU worked alongside women’s organisations to abolish the Jordanian law — that women needed their male relative’s permission to travel abroad. They fought for the marriage age to be raised from 15 to 18, and for sex education in schools. Unfortunately these issues fell off the agenda with the second intifada in 2000 and the Fatah-Hamas conflict, but both are now back on track.
The women’s conference offered us an insight into the working lives of Palestinian women: their average work day is 15 hours and the pay 10 shekels per day, about £2. Palestinian women also have a great deal of unpaid work to do — agricultural work and domestic labour. 67 per cent of the women who aren’t in the labour force say it’s because they have too much work to do in the home. And 46 percent of highly educated women are unemployed.
Head of the PGFTU’s Women Department Amneh Rimawi, said at the conference that “women are one of the main groups suffering as a result of the occupation”. They lost their husbands who they once depended on and have taken on the responsibility for the whole family. They lost their homes in Jerusalem territory disputes. To top this off, women (and children) have increasingly become the victims of a morose type of domestic violence, fuelled by anger and frustration borne out of the Israeli occupation. The “16 Days Campaign” is raising awareness of domestic violence.
Another PGFTU activist explained to that one of the main tasks for Palestinians, besides fighting the occupation, is now rebuilding civil society.
Women’s organisations have organised to force the Palestinian Authority to sign a “Declaration of Women’s Rights” but its implementation is held back it is said, by financial constraints.
The declaration included laws to protect women from discrimination and harassment at work; the right of mothers to keep their children, and made honour killings, still legal under Jordanian law, illegal.
Glimmers of hope can be found in the fact that before the Oslo peace agreement in the early 90s, women’s campaigning was around nationalist, liberation and charity work. Today, in a distinct political twist, women’s networking is based around campaigns for rights in education; government; business and trade unions.
Other Palestinian workers’ organisations are also organising women. The Democracy and Workers’ Rights Centre, unionise women in the kindergarten, pharmaceutical and handicraft trades.
The Workers’ Advice Centre (WAC) is an Israeli-Arab organisation that is campaigning to unionise Arab women in Israel, currently just 18 percent of the workforce. WAC also builds solidarity between Israelis and Palestinians to end the occupation.
These are the kind of organisations the left in Britain should be making solidarity with.