20 MAY 2016

GA/PAL/1371

Tackling Challenges Facing Women, Youth Critical for Sustainable Development,
Speakers Say, as Seminar on Assistance to Palestinian People Continues

STOCKHOLM, 19 May — The success of Palestine’s sustainable development aspirations would hinge on its ability to address the unique challenges facing women and young people, speakers told the United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People, as it continued this morning.

During the Seminar’s second plenary session, on “enabling sustainable solutions for a dignified future”, participants representing Governments, non-governmental and civil society organizations examined the role of women and youth in creating a peaceful and inclusive Palestinian society.

Hanan al Hroub, a Palestinian teacher participating via video conference from the West Bank, said the reality of Palestine was full of violence, the inevitable result of Israel’s occupation.  However, despite the difficult circumstances, including repressive policies, collective punishment and restrictions on movement, young Palestinians were keen to learn and acquire knowledge in every possible way, she emphasized.  Greater investment in Palestinian teachers was required to restore their social status and improve their living conditions so that they could live in dignity, without having to look for second jobs, she said.  Donor countries must allocate funds to increase the incomes of teachers so they could exhibit greater creativity in moulding future generations.

Jennifer Olmsted, a professor from Drew University in the United States, said that economic, environmental and social issues viewed through the lens of gender would present serious challenges to Palestine’s sustainable development objectives.  Economic hardships increased the prevalence of child marriage and violence against women, while the rising wage gap between men and women, as well as the level of women’s participation in the labour force at 19.4 per cent, the lowest in the Arab world, was of great concern.  Additionally, reverse industrialization, creating a drop in manufacturing, was moving women more towards the agricultural sector.  The profound long-term effects of those and other dynamics could not be understated, she emphasized.

Jessica Devaney, producer of the documentary film Speed Sisters – portraying a group of female Palestinian auto racers – said that stereotypes of Palestinians could be broken down through positive messaging in documentaries and other media efforts.  Describing her work as being rooted in a theory of change, she said it sought to address gaps in mainstream media, which were largely fixated on militarism and violence, while supporting problematic foreign policy aims.  She expressed concern that many media organizations, particularly in the United States, portrayed female Palestinians as a homogenous group of oppressed women and Palestinian men as tyrants and religious extremists.

As the floor opened for an interactive discussion, a number of speakers exchanged views on gender equality issues, including violence against women and employment prospects.  They also explored unique challenges facing young people, including the prevalence of child labour.

Preceded by the screening of Speed Sisters, the Seminar will reconvene at 3 p.m. on Friday, 20 May, for a third plenary session and to conclude its work.

Plenary II

The second plenary session featured presentations by Hanan al Hroub, Palestinian teacher and winner of the 2016 Global Teacher Prize; Jennifer Olmsted, Professor and Director of Middle East Studies, Drew University; and Jessica Devaney, producer, Speed Sisters.

Ms. AL HROUB, speaking via videoconference from the West Bank, said reality in Palestine was full of violence, the inevitable result of Israel’s occupation.  Despite the difficult circumstances, comprising repressive policies, collective punishment and restrictions on movement, particularly against the youth, young Palestinians were keen to learn and acquire knowledge in every possible way, she said.  Although local universities could not accommodate all students, the percentage of females in Palestinian universities had reached about 58 per cent.  Large numbers of graduates had Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees, yet the availability of jobs had not increased at the same rate.  Meanwhile, employment opportunities outside Palestine were minimal owing to the difficulty of obtaining residency permits for countries where jobs were available.  Investment in creating job opportunities was insufficient and largely restricted to local investors or expatriates, she said.

Every child had a story, yet in Palestine, most of those stories were very painful, she continued, adding that in her classroom, she played the role of psychologist, social worker and teacher, with the aim of building bridges of trust between herself and the children.  Reducing violence was the only alternative to the current situation, not only in Palestine, but around the world.  Most violence was due to a single cause:  the absence of justice.  The international community must be decisive and firm in order to end violence in the Middle East so that its people could live in peace.  Greater investment in Palestinian teachers was needed to restore their social status and improve their living conditions so they could live in dignity, without having to look for second jobs, she stressed.  That would require donor countries to allocate dedicated funds to increase their incomes so they could exhibit greater creativity in moulding future generations.

Ms. OLMSTED pointed out a number of issues that would continue to present obstacles to Palestine’s development in the post-2015 era.  They included rising inequality, a lack of decent work and unpaid work, particularly for women, and failure to recognize the link between unpaid work and sustainable development.  Economic, environmental and social issues, all of which could be viewed through the lens of gender, would present serious challenges to Palestine’s sustainable development objectives, she noted, adding that economic hardships increased the prevalence of child marriage and violence against women.  Conflict, including displacement and statelessness, macroeconomic distortions as well as physical and psychological health issues created significant hurdles for Palestine’s development.

Regarding employment, she said there was a rising wage gap between men and women.  Reverse industrialization had created a drop in manufacturing, moving women more towards the agricultural sector.  There were also elements of reverse feminization, with more men entering fields traditionally dominated by women, she said, stressing that the profound long-term effects of those and other dynamics could not be understated.  The cycle of poverty and violence was of great concern, as were the lasting effects of child marriage and post-traumatic stress disorder, which often made it difficult for people to effectively parent their children.  Nevertheless, some notable success stories included declines in child mortality, a narrowing education gap and improved maternal health, she said.  Moving forward, policy priorities should include ending the occupation, providing compensation for economic losses, increasing the availability of psycho-social support and enhancing opportunities for decent work.

Ms. DEVANEY said that documentary films had historically proven effective in breaking down stereotypes of life in Palestine, with the long-term aim of promoting greater freedom, dignity and justice for Palestinians.  Describing her work as being rooted in a theory of change, she said it sought to address gaps in mainstream media, which were largely fixated on militarism and violence.  She expressed concern that stereotypes perpetuated in the media served to support problematic foreign policy aims, whereas some of the hallmarks of her own film’s media strategy were messages of non-violence, unity across divides, and women’s leadership.  Stories could shift discourse over time, although “one film is not going to be enough”, she said.

Recalling that her early efforts had centred on elevating the work of activists, she said it had lacked a long-term vision of the everyday struggles of life in Palestine, which was an element she attempted to explore in greater depth through Speed Sisters.  The film’s focus was the extent to which the lives of its main characters represented the struggle for dignity and equality as a “lived experience”, she explained, adding that showing what that looked like in daily life under occupation was an especially poignant method of storytelling.  Noting that many media organizations, particularly in the United States, portrayed female Palestinians as a homogenous group of oppressed women and men as tyrants and religious extremists, she said such portrayals could be viewed as naïve stereotypes, although they were more likely part of a strategy to support foreign policy interventions in the region.

Discussion

In the ensuing discussion, a number of intergovernmental, non-governmental and civil society representatives discussed the presentations and questioned the panellists.

IBRAHIM AL-SHAER, Minister for Social Development of the State of Palestine, expressed appreciation for the fact that Ms. al Hroub had accomplished so much as an educator and a woman, despite having grown up as a refugee.

RIYAD MANSOUR, Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine, shared that sentiment, saying the State was proud of her work and that more should be done to publicize her accomplishments to the rest of the world.

DAOUD AL DEEK, Deputy Minister for Social Development of the State of Palestine, said humanitarian aid should take the gender perspective into consideration.  On employment, he noted the large participation of women in the informal economy without any legal or social protection, and expressed concern that some private sector policies continued to discriminate against women.

Ms. OLMSTED said that although Palestine did not have a profound gender equality issue, participation in the labour force would not be a “magic bullet” to solve women’s empowerment issues.  The problem of violence must be addressed in the context of larger gender issues, since violence and militarism were often reproduced in the home.

MS. AL HROUB, responding after Ms. Olmstead, asked her about the type of support teachers received in terms of social work training, and said she had sought training in social work on her own rather than through a formal process, although she believed training for teachers should be institutionalized across the education system.

The representative of the Palestine Solidarity Association of Sweden asked about the prevalence of child labour in Palestine.

Mr. AL DEEK replied that the State was working to address that issue, noting that the law forbade any child below 15 years of age to work.

The representative of the League of Arab States, commenting on Ms. Devaney’s presentation, asked about the different types of impact that mainstream films movies had in comparison to documentaries.  He also asked for more information on how Speed Sisters was distributed worldwide.

Ms. DEVANEY responded by saying that documentary films could affect cultural change, but that often took quite a long time.  The goal should be to create a movement that would generate political will and encourage leaders and “influencers” to speak on behalf of Palestinian issues.  “No one film is going to dismantle the occupation,” she emphasized, adding that an entire movement based on cumulative efforts would be needed.

For information media. Not an official record.