Her tireless work has helped countless women throughout Palestine. Women’s rights advocate Salwa Duaibis speaks to Amal Awad about working with women under occupation and their extraordinary resilience.
Earlier this year, Four Corners, an Australian current affairs programme on the national broadcast network ABC, aired a show that turned the spotlight on children in Palestine.[i] More specifically, the segment ‘Stone Cold Justice’ documented the crushing reality of life in the Occupied Territories, with a focus on the way the Israeli army targets and prosecutes young Palestinian boys.
Among the voices heard in this heartbreaking piece was that of Salwa Duaibis of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling (WCLAC), an independent non-governmental organisation based in Ramallah, whose aim is to develop a democratic Palestinian society based on principles of gender equality and social justice.
“WCLAC aims to address the causes and consequences of gender-based violence within the Palestinian community as well as the gender-specific effects of human rights violations arising from prolonged occupation,” explains Salwa.
“To this end, WCLAC acts not only to reverse negative cultural legacies and discriminatory social attitudes towards Palestinian women, but also to address the needs of women who are victims of Israel’s actions in Palestine.”
Salwa says WCLAC is “a leading defender of women’s rights in Palestine”, and is unwavering in its commitment to provide legal aid, social counselling and protection services to women in an environment where human rights abuses are rampant and women’s issues are regularly overlooked.
Through Salwa’s work as head of the international advocacy programme at WCLAC, she has heard many a disturbing tale from mothers who were forced to watch their sons marshalled out of their homes in the middle of the night.
In her role in the advocacy programme, which was established to monitor and document Israel’s human rights violations and to highlight the gender-specific impact of these violations, Salwa sees approximately 150 testimonies collected each year from Palestinian women living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
“The testimonies are used in advocacy campaigns, giving voice to women who live behind the Wall, near settlements or beside bypass roads. Palestinian women tell incredible human stories about themselves and their families, which have a long-lasting impact on the listener, making them powerful advocates on behalf of all Palestinians.”
This sort of work is not new to Salwa, herself a powerful advocate. She has spent much of her professional life invested in aiding the oppressed, with some interesting approaches to addressing injustice. Before joining WCLAC, Salwa operated a women’s cooperative that employed about 40 women in the first West Bank manufacturing operation to export high quality women’s lingerie. The clients were top retail outlets in the United States and Europe, such as Harrods, Victoria’s Secret and Sax Fifth Avenue.
The aim of the enterprise was to identify and challenge obstacles to direct trade between the occupied territory and the rest of the world, explains Salwa. Moreover, the intention was to demonstrate that, if given the opportunity, Palestinians – especially women – are capable of successfully competing in the world market.
“Pieces of silk G-strings, camisoles, night dresses and robes sold in upmarket retail outlets carried the label ‘Made in the Israeli occupied West Bank’. Women felt proud of their product and were able to earn good income, in some cases more than the men in their families. They happily challenged restrictions imposed by the Israeli military such as curfews, power cuts, checkpoints and even arrest in order to meet strict deadlines while maintaining a high standard.”
The operation was not to last, however. While Salwa says they were able to obtain separate customs codes from the American and European governments that recognised the occupied Palestinian territory as a separate entity, the factory was forced to shut down when tax credits owed to the organisation were withheld by the Israeli authorities.
“The organisation then focused on lobbying European governments to hold them accountable for their obligations with regard to Israel’s violations. This was about European laws and regulations being breached, we argued, and not so much about Israel’s conduct.”
The experience left Salwa feeling exhausted, following decades of advocacy and effort.
“After 25 years of this kind of work I took a year off to catch my breath. I was invited to join WCLAC and was immediately immersed in working with incredibly strong women who were desperate to be heard, women who had been struggling for years to make ends meet while at the same time dealing with the challenges that a conservative society imposes on women on top of the challenges imposed by occupation.”
In her work at WCLAC, Salwa spends a lot of time travelling around the West Bank and East Jerusalem interviewing women in order to understand the challenges they face, “which are many and varied and include home demolitions, freedom of movement restrictions, limits on who they can marry, where they can live and the education they can receive”.
“But the issue that stands out for me, above all other issues, is that of the settlements built in clear violation of international law on Palestinian land. What I have learnt from my work, is that not only are the settlements illegal, but they are also at the epicentre of a host of human rights violations that occur on a daily basis and affect 2.5 million Palestinians.
Salwa says that in order for a settlement to be a viable project, the local Palestinian population is crushed.
“There is simply no other way of doing settlements. What this means on the ground is night raids, checkpoints, mass detention and settler violence – the sum of which traumatises generation after generation of Palestinians.”
It may seem difficult to see the positive in such darkness, but for Salwa, there is joy in connecting with women living under Israeli occupation. It’s a matter of listening to their stories, and trying to glean an understanding of how these women cope and maintain their sanity.
“It also burdens me with a huge sense of responsibility that I need to do something to try to change the reality for these women, many of whom make the point to me that no one cares, so why bother tell the stories,” Salwa adds.
“What keeps me going is that deep inside I believe that people do care and want to know the truth about this conflict and they want to understand the high human cost it has inflicted over the years on ordinary men, women and children.”
Salwa says she also enjoys observing the immediate benefits to storytelling for these women, whom she says have a captive audience in their husbands, fathers and brothers, who listen and watch with admiration.
“They sometimes surprise themselves with how articulate they are,” she says. “When I ask them what message they want to send to the world, they tell me they want nothing other than to live in dignity and security with the promise of a better future for their children.”
As for Salwa’s ultimate desire, it is to see peace with justice. “This I believe, can only be achieved when well-established legal principles are enforced.”