Association for the Improvement of Women's Status in Lakia
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Association for the Improvement of Women's Status in Lakia

Bedouin women help themselves to independence and self worth

The news is full of stories about Jewish and Palestinian populations who make their homes within the boundaries of modern Israel. But what about the Bedouins? Traditionally a nomadic people, Bedouins living in Israel were encouraged to establish permanent settlements in 1982. These villages were set up to provide this ethnic group with homes, grazing land, and educational opportunities. Today, there are seven Bedouin townships in Israel that are officially recognized by the government. One of these is Lakia.

Over time, Bedouin men gradually entered the urban workforce. Women, on the other hand, had greater obstacles to overcome and were increasingly being marginalized. Born into a patriarchal society, they were expected to play a traditional role in society. The husband rules the home, and opportunities outside the home are fewer and generally less well-paying than what an average Israeli might enjoy. Yet, with the loss of their traditional household responsibilities came a loss of purpose and empowerment, as most women had few marketable skills and are forbidden by their husbands from leaving home to seek employment.

Stitching their way to independence

In the early days of the settlement, one of the customs of the women of Lakia was to congregate at a central well twice a day to share conversation and support while they gathered the water needed by their families. Once a system of running water was in place, however, the gate to the well was padlocked shut, and the women had to look for another way to connect. Because the well attracted Bedouin women of different tribes, the new meeting place had to be a neutral space, rather than a private home, for example. A tent became the alternative.

The women who gathered under a tent in Lakia, however, longed for empowerment and equality. So they turned to one of their deepest traditions: embroidery. In 1992, a team of four women founded the Association for the Improvement of Women's Status in Lakia to help the women of the township and the surrounding area improve their lot. It was the first organization of its kind in Israel.

The NGO focuses on the ancient craft of embroidery, creating clothing and decorative items that also preserve the lore of the Bedouin culture. By then helping to sell their work, the association helps women earn an income—and a sense of independence.

Widening the canvas

There was resistance at first. The six women who were the association's first employees endured threats, and in 2005 their embroidery factory was burned down. They persevered, however, and today more than 160 women have been trained to develop their traditional embroidery skills, often confiding their dreams to fabric and colorful thread.

The dedication of the Bedouin women to the association is remarkable. Lakia is located in a rugged landscape on the outskirts of the Negev Desert, and many women walk with their children for more than an hour to get there from a distant village or wait just as long for a school bus. The association has introduced several new programs to support the community, including a mobile library designed to promote literacy among children. Until recently, however, there was an important program that was missing, and it also involved children—namely, how to take care of them while their mothers were on the premises. A daycare center was needed, where the children could play and learn while their mothers were occupied.

In September, a Grand Circle Foundation donation helped make the dream of a daycare center a reality. Today, it serves 50 children ages 1-1/2 to 18, with staffing from the association's own membership. While at the center, the children can enjoy free time, engage in afterschool activities, or participate in a "Young Leadership" program, which is offered two afternoons a week.

Shifting the pattern for young girls

Like the adult women of Lakia, Bedouin girls have nowhere to turn for the personal or professional fulfillment that modern Israeli women enjoy just beyond the borders of the village. They are often called upon to take care of their families at a very young age. Education, employment, and financial independence are simply not part of a young woman's development.

In 2010, Grand Circle Foundation developed an Invest in a Village initiative that would enable us to work more closely than ever with village leaders to make meaningful, sustainable changes in the communities we support. Invest in a Village also allows Grand Circle Travel and Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) travelers to contribute directly to these projects.

One of those projects is the Bedouin Women's Leadership project. To date, generous traveler donations totaling $7,000 have funded instructor fees, transportation, books, and classroom rentals for English language lessons at the Association for the Improvement of Women's Status for young women between the ages of 14 and 18.

We are grateful to our travelers for their generous contributions to the effort to change the lives of Bedouin women in Israel for the better.

To view a video about the Association for Improvement of Women's Status in Lakia, click here.

To find out more about the Invest in a Village initiative in Lakia, click here.

Featured in our March/April 2013 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.