In the press
Mending gender fences in Jerusalem
02 June 2000
Bonn, Germany: Gabriela Elroy is a Swedish UN Volunteer fully-funded by her government who is working as a gender specialist with the Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy (MEND), a Palestinian NGO in Jerusalem. In cooperation with MEND, UNV has developed a gender-focused project titled Choose a Future, which is funded through the Government of Japan. Gabriela is presently working on the Choose a Future project as well as streamlining gender into MEND's overall activities. UNV Programme Manager Jean-Luc Bories spoke to her about her vision and work.
Gender mainstreaming has been sort of trendy for the last few years, but there is confusion regarding the concept of gender. In your opinion, what should we understand by "gender"?
I believe that this problem is derived from the still existing confusion between the concepts of "gender" and "sex". In short, "gender" refers to the social understanding of women and men, and as such, it stands in contrast to "sex", which relates to the biologically determined functions of females and males. In this sense, gender is a theoretical concept used to understand and analyse observed inequalities between women and men. The source of confusion lies in the fact that the studied phenomenon, i.e. inequalities between women and men, follows the organizing principle of sex. The causes of these inequalities have too often been linked to the biologically determined differences between females and males, and therefore perceived to be "natural" and unchangeable. However, while the biological differences between females and males are constant and universal, the inequalities differ between cultures and change over time. Accordingly, rather than being anchored in human biology, they are caused by social structures.
Where and when do you think the conception of gender was born?
The concept of gender is fairly new, but if we understand it as the call for equality between women and men, I believe it started when women collectively were demanding rights previously denied to them. Beginning with the suffragette movement in England calling for the right to vote, understood as the right to be full citizens, about hundred years ago.
What does your work as a UNV involve?
The overall responsibility of my assignment as a gender specialist with MEND is to integrate a gender perspective throughout MEND's activities. The bulk of my work has been to conduct gender training for the teachers who are teaching the Choose a Future curriculum to the girls, and to take part in the adaptation and editing of the curriculum. My next step will be to conduct comprehensive gender training for the rest of MEND's staff, do networking with other gender related projects and continue to develop MEND's overall capacity to incorporate a gender perspective throughout its activities.
Who are the target groups for the MEND organization?
The motivation for Mrs. Lucy Nusseibeh to establish MEND was to create an organization that would work to strengthen Palestinian society by empowering underprivileged groups, promote the concepts of non-violence and increase their civic participation. The Choose a Future project's primary target group is the group of four to 16-year-old girls living in remote and often neglected areas, while the teachers implementing the course with the girls make up the second target group. And given the cooperation with the Ministry of Education, we want the educational system as a whole to benefit from the project.
What are the objectives of the Choose a Future project and what is your role?
The ultimate objective of Choose a Future is to strengthen the self-confidence of 120 teenage girls residing in the rural areas around Ramallah and Jericho, and empower them to make individual life choices. The girls are going through a six-months after school programme, known as Choose a Future, which is being implemented by 14 teachers working in the seven participating local schools. My role is to provide gender training for the teachers now training the girls, to participate in the development and editing of the curriculum and to follow-up on the gender parts of the project. We are using videos and the Internet as means to connect girls with strong female role models and to publish their experiences.
What are the challenges of gender issues that you face?
The main challenge is to make people willing to fully comprehend the concept of gender. It involves changing perceptions about the sexes that are deeply rooted within us, and is thus a challenge for the people I train as well. Another difficulty is to overcome so called "cultural" alibis, i.e. the justification of gender inequalities in the name of "culture". For this it is important to emphasize that gender inequality is a universal phenomenon, and not related to a specific culture or society. My third challenge is sometimes to convince the women that change is possible.
What do you feel that you achieve with the people you work?
My hope is to make people see how gender inequalities are created to reach an understanding from where we are able to make a change. This takes a long time and achievements are difficult to measure. Nevertheless, during the sequence of training sessions, I sensed how the understanding of gender developed, and the capacity to apply it to a variety of life situations enhanced significantly.
For an example, one teacher once said that she felt that her newly acquired knowledge about gender pulls the carpet from beneath her feet. For me this was a good sign, indicating that she is going through a process of revaluation, which raising gender awareness is really all about. If the process is completed successfully, she will find a new carpet to stand on.
Do you feel that the teachers feel comfortable with you?
In spite of our communication problems, due to the fact that I don't speak Arabic, I do feel that we interact in a relaxed atmosphere where we all feel comfortable. This has been achieved with the help of the national UNV Fedah Shafi, Choose a Future's regional coordinator for Ramallah, who is translating for me.
What do you think is your greatest contribution as a United Nations Volunteer?
My wish as a UNV is to contribute my knowledge to MEND and the people I work with, so that they can take over and continue by themselves. I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to work with gender-related issues at the grassroots level in this way.
How have your studies and previous professional experiences helped you in your present work as a UNV?
My studies have given me a solid academic base of social sciences, useful in the general work with development and social change. And as an intern at UNDP's Sustainable Human Development Unit, I had the privilege to be exposed to a lot of gender related projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and it also provided me with he opportunity to do a couple of gender related workshops.
What were your motivations to become a UNV?
I was motivated by the fact that the UNV program offered me a chance to make a contribution on the grass root level, in a field of dear concern to me, while simultaneously providing me with a position within which I can develop professionally as well as personally.
Do you think that your present experience as a UNV will help you in achieving other jobs in the future?
Well, since my ambition is to proceed within the field of gender and development, and my present UNV position gives me a unique experience within this field, I am sure that my work as a UNV will be valuable for any future job.
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