Palestine: Empowering women teachers

published 12 October 2023 updated 17 October 2023

The General Union of Palestinian Teachers (GUPT) has put gender equity at the heart of union priorities, organising training sessions for women members around the theme “Women's and girls’ full participation in society: Are Palestinian women reaping the benefits of education in similar ways to the rest of the world?”

(Editor's note: This article and the activities described were written before the most recent escalation of violence in the area. In recent days GUPT has reported that many teachers have been killed in Gaza, and schools have been destroyed. Access to water, electricity, fuel, and food has been cut off in their communities. Education International is calling for an immediate end to the violence and long term negotiated peace.)

Educated women, but without access and representation

Almost 200 teachers from Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza strip were involved in the training during the summer of 2023.

“Palestinian women continue to be some of the most educated women in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. While women’s academic participation is indeed measurable, they are not reaping the benefits of education. Palestinian women, especially educated Palestinian women, are overlooked, and under-represented in the Palestinian society," explained EI’s coordinator for Arab countries Dalila El Barhmi.

"Current indicators reveal that access to education has not significantly improved women's status in Palestinian society. It is therefore an imperative to benefit from Palestinian women's education and skills in society not only as a social right, but a development necessity,” she added.

The percentage of educated women in Palestine is one of the highest around the world with a 99,6 in 2020 for completion in primary and upper secondary, but “while Palestinian women have always been visible in the national struggle, they have limited leadership and decision making-opportunities. Their participation in civil society and the formal government has been restricted,” added El Barhmi.

In decision-making positions, women comprise only 8.3% of all ministers, 0% of ministerial representatives, and 6% of assistants to the Ministerial representatives. Within all ministries women comprise 30% of staff. In the Ministry of Women's Affairs, women are the majority, comprising 68.1% which is not an encouraging indicator, El Barhmi went on to say.

For her, education unions are leading by example, focusing on the education of future generations, particularly of girls, “as a form of protest, resistance to ongoing the conflict plaguing the country and the Arab region, displacement, and upheaval.” Women and girls’ education has therefore thrived in recent years.

The COVID-19 crisis, a catalyst for education unions’ transformation

GUPT, which is the largest union in Palestine, wants to have a truly representative union and integrate women educators in the union decision making structures.

During the COVID pandemic, GUPT continued to engage in social dialogue with the government, to fight for decent working conditions and welfare for teachers and education personnel and started a process of trade union transformation to better reflect the realities of the 21st century.

“The union stepped up during the rapid shift to distance learning, they have developed online programmes, trained teachers via distance learning, and supported students to decrease inequality among learners,” the EI coordinator underlined.

The union made sure the transformation also challenged discrimination and increased women's involvement in education, in trade unions and in society.

“This process was a driver to enhance women’s leadership within the union’ structures,” El Barhmi added.

From words to action: Mechanisms put in place to enhance women educators’ participation

With the support of international sister organisations, GUPT developed their own strategy to promote women’s participation and leadership within their union and in education. Among the GUPT objectives are:

  • Increasing the number of women in key union leadership and decision-making bodies at the regional and national levels, through capacity development trainings on leadership for women. They have also introduced policies such as gender quotas and allocated budget for their gender equity programmes.
  • Activating their Women’s Committee and prioritising the recruitment of young female teachers.
  • Identifying and addressing the barriers to women’s participation in union leadership and decision-making processes.

The union is also working with the Ministry of Education to review schoolbooks, “so that gender discrimination is not inherently written in curriculum.” GUPT is also organising training for educators to avoid the perpetuation of discriminatory stereotypes in the classroom.

It is important for GUPT to secure the right to education for all Palestinian students especially girls, and they call for teaching and learning to occur in quality environments, she also stressed. “This also means that students, educators, and schools must be free from attack: they must be safe from intentional threats or use of force that is carried out for political, military, ideological, ethnic, religious, or criminal reasons. Every effort must be made to eradicate the different types of violence that occur all too frequently in and around educational settings.”

This project was set up by a consortium comprising of Education International (EI), GUPT, the National Education Association (NEA)/United States of America, the National Education Union (NEU)/United Kingdom, and the Union of Education Norway (UEN).

Trainees become trainers

“GUPT has a vision to empower women - especially teachers – by providing the needed knowledge and experience, building self-confidence, supporting the initiatives, appreciating creativity and achieving justice and equal opportunities,” also acknowledged Nada Mohammad Alashqar, an electrical engineer and passionate IT school teacher and an E-learning skills trainer who benefited from the first phase of the GUPT training, and now is a trainer herself.

Trainers are experienced teachers, ministry of education employees, members of the GUPT and experts in trade unionism from Palestine and other regional countries like Lebanon, she mentioned that among topics discussed were:

  • The GUPT Women's Committee: establishment, roles, achievements, vision, and challenges.
  • Gender Concepts: gender definition, analysis, assessment, equality, equity, integration, mainstreaming, gender-based violence and empowerment.
  • Palestinian Gender Policies: what policies are applied in the work environment, schools, and universities and even at home and in the family. What policies need to be applied and what needs to be improved.
  • Gender in the curriculum: does the school curriculum consider the gender concept? The teachers were asked to search in the schoolbooks they teach whether the exercises and questions were asked according to gender concept.
  • Women being leaders and decision-makers in the GUPT. From the beginning, the training was designed to help female teachers in general and new female teachers in particular to be able to fill a leading role in the GUPT and to become decision-makers.

As leading roles can only be taken when a woman teacher is also an expert and up-to-date with the rapid development in teaching methods and platforms, the training also included a package of technical skills and e-learning strategies, Alashqar said.

“We hope that the recent outburst of violence in the region, which we firmly condemn, will not undermine work done and stop this successful union programme, for the sake of Palestinian women and their education system, and for the reinstalment of peace,” El Barhmi concluded.