“Do people in other countries think we’re terrorists?”

I admit I’m surprised by the question. The girl is no more than fifteen, sitting quietly among other students her age at a secondary school in Gaza. They’re all members of the school parliament – a student body elected by peers and representing them in discussions with school management.  I’m with a couple of UN staff and we’ve just spent the past 45 minutes asking them about their activities. They set up peer mediation groups for students with disagreements; they coordinate trips to local organizations, including visits to the elderly; they raise funds to help poor students; they provide support to students traumatized by the latest rocket attacks back in November; they help students with their homework; they keep the school clean. They are articulate, enthusiastic, and eager to talk about their accomplishments. They even put on a slideshow partway through.

The school bell rings, signalling the start of the afternoon shift; the students are ready to go, but my UN friends ask them if they have any questions for us. As a young girl speaks, my friend nods and translates into English. “She wants to know if people in other countries think that all Palestinians are terrorists.”
For a split second I’m sixteen again and standing on the stage of my high school auditorium at the end of the Christmas play feeling the suffocating heat of my Santa Claus costume and ready to pull it off when a young mother walks up the stairs holding her young son by the hand and tells me he missed Santa at the mall and could he say to me what he wants for Christmas? I want to say Duh I’m not Santa but spot the sad look in the kid’s eyes and realize that maybe this moment means more to him than me so I play along and give him my best Ho-ho-ho and –
– Looking at the dozens of eyes staring back at me waiting for an answer I want to say No of course not don’t be ridiculous. But that isn’t the truth. All you have to do is travel a few kilometres north of the border and ask that question to people on the street and you’ll find at least a some who swear that every man, woman, boy and girl in Gaza is nothing but a terrorist. I want to say No don’t be silly but that just isn’t so. There are people I’ve met who know about my work for Palestine refugees and when I speak of Palestinians’ suffering the response is always “Yes, but” and I grow tired of it. “Yes, but the Palestinians receive millions in donations and the money goes back to firing rockets into Israel.” “Yes, but there are always two sides to the story. Israelis live in constant fear for their safety.”  “Yes, but they are the ones who put bombs in baby carriages and kill us.”
Girls at a secondary school in Gaza.

I pause a moment before answering the girl. “No,” I say, “not everyone thinks that. My friends and family know a lot about Palestinians and of the suffering that they are going through. They ask me what your lives are like; they ask me how a peaceful solution can ever become a reality. They are genuinely interested in seeing you live a life of dignity, and we all know that the actions and words of those in power – anywhere – are not necessarily a reflection of the hearts and minds of the people who must live by their rules.” Part of my answer is a copout; it’s too easy to rely on what friends and family think because they are sympathetic to Palestinian autonomy and freedom. But I withhold speaking about the more nuanced reality that exists, one in which many people are divided on their (often strong and ill-informed) opinions about Palestinians.

The girls I meet are hopeful in a place that is rotten, broken, smashed, bombed, cracked, patched together, and filled with garbage on the streets. Nearly every street corner has a weather weary poster of a martyr brandishing a machine gun looking very Rambo-epic and ready to die. Turn the corner to walk into a school and you see walls plastered with malformed paintings of SpongeBob, Mickey Mouse and Papa Smurf smiling right at you. The juxtaposition of violence and fear with happiness and a safe learning environment is enough to mess anyone up; that the girls still have hope is nothing short of miraculous. I don’t know if my answer means anything to them, but they need to know that their hope has to lead them to a better life.

Still searching for the gender “Ah-ha” moment: Reflections on the Busan High Level Forum, one year later

I was recently in Gaza and I asked primary school teachers whether or not girls and boys were treated equally in their communities. The answer was a resounding yes. I then asked: “Do boys and girls do the same amount of work at home?” No, they stated: girls did all the housework and boys played for the most part. As the discussion continued, it was apparent that some teachers started questioning their own notions of gender equality for the first time. It was their gender “Ah-ha” moment that enabled them to question gender roles and go beyond associating gender equality with numerical equivalence of boys and girls.
The 2011 Busan Outcome Document has a component on “gender commitments.” Paragraph 20 highlights the importance of “recognizing gender equality and women’s empowerment” to achieve development results. Broadly speaking, the commitments focus on using sex-disaggregated data to inform policies, integrating targets for gender equality in accountability mechanisms, and addressing gender equality and women’s empowerment “in all aspects of our development efforts.” This is laudable, but the reality for most organizations working in development makes these commitments unattainable aspirations.
I say this because, in the year since the Busan High Level Forum, I have seen little evidence of organizations improving the way they address gender equality and women’s empowerment. I’ve spoken to people from donor organizations, NGOs, civil society organizations (CSOs), governments, and international NGOs. With the exception of development organizations with a rich experience in ensuring gender equality and women’s empowerment, gender is still frequently inserted into development projects as an add-on with little or no thought. Sadly, whenever I provide feedback on development projects that have no gender perspective, typical responses continue to be “It doesn’t matter, we’ll add ‘with a gender perspective’ at the end of our goal and the donor will be happy,” or “Half the people affected by the project are women, so we have gender equality.” It has never been that simple.
Two women and two men! Gender equality? Sorry, not that easy.
These responses point to a challenge highlighted by the Open Forum for CSO Development Effectiveness. In its Gender Equality and Development Effectiveness report from July 2011, the Open Forum listed a number of challenges CSOs face when putting gender equality into practice. Among the challenges is a patriarchal culture present in both the working environments of development organizations and the societies in which they operate. If people don’t believe in gender equality to begin with, how will the Busan gender commitments ever become a reality?
Apart from the patriarchal culture, I think there is an overwhelming misunderstanding of what gender equality means. To believe in and ensure gender equality I think one needs to be open to the reality that inequality exists and gender equality can bring about positive change.
I’d venture to say that the typical development worker has yet to experience their gender “Ah-ha” moment. As such it’s even unlikelier that they’ll be in a position to “address gender equality and women’s empowerment” in all aspects of their work without education, guidance and support on how to do this. This can best happen when gender equality and women’s empowerment are grounded in a normative human rights framework that recognizes women as rights holders. This isn’t stated strongly in the Busan Outcome Document, and it’s why the proposed Busan Joint Action Plan for Gender Equality and Development was not endorsed by women’s organizations.
I’d love to be proven wrong, but my sense is that the Busan gender commitments won’t amount to substantive change anytime soon. 

Human rights when everything’s wrong

Imagine a simple drawing showing a group of men, women and children who appear to be of Palestinian origin, frantically fleeing a series of armoured tanks and soldiers brandishing guns and dressed in green uniforms. The faces of the soldiers are too small to make out clearly but, if you look closely enough, you will see what appears to be the Star of David on one of the tanks.


Now imagine that drawing as part of a lesson plan for secondary school students on the right to humanitarian treatment.  If you assumed this was a lesson plan for Palestine refugees, you’d be right.

When I saw this image in a lesson plan a few months ago I said to a friend, “Why is this in here? What possible good does it serve to show Palestinian civilians attacked by Israeli soldiers?” He didn’t have an answer. On the plus side, it didn’t appear as though any teachers regularly used the lesson.

Bias in textbooks is nothing new. As a recent Economist article pointed out, some Israeli textbooks represent Palestinians as refugees, farmers, and terrorists. Books written by the Palestinian Authority “since the 1990s often shy away from awkward questions. The authors cannot decide whether to portray Palestine as they understand it historically, Palestine as they hope it may emerge from a settlement with Israel, or the messy reality on the ground that changes from year to year.”

Forget from year to year. Things were relatively calm when I entered Gaza a couple of Fridays ago, and within 48 hours there were rocket and mortar attacks at the border when I crossed back into Israel. Since then the assaults have become deadlier by the day with, hopefully, a lasting ceasefire that has just taken effect.

Regardless of the ever-changing situation in Gaza, what children learn about related to human rights should reflect a positive outlook. Even though a curriculum showing that “you’re oppressed and things aren’t getting any better” may be accurate, I doubt it’s in the best interests of children. This doesn’t mean that difficult issues around the rights of Palestine refugees should never be addressed in schools. They must, if children are to become active participants in creating a culture of human rights. In order for that to happen, though, teachers must have the proper skills to engage students into critically reflecting on their lives using a language based on human rights.

Sounds straightforward. I want to convince teachers to have a positive outlook, but honestly my own convictions are tested in situations where senseless violence and fear become the norm. As the bombs finally stop falling in Gaza and Israel I wonder why I’m doing the work I do in human rights. My last trip was only for two days. I was there to pilot a toolkit on human rights I’ve been developing for UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The goal of the pilot was to get feedback from primary school teachers on the structure, content, and usability of the toolkit. Following the two-day workshop, the teachers were expected to try out parts of the toolkit in their classrooms with their students. One school was scheduled to try three of the toolkit’s activities, another two schools planned on doing four activities each, and a fourth school wanted to try out five activities. The activities focus on the understanding of different human rights themes: learning about human rights in general, strengthening respect for each other, learning to solve conflicts peacefully, appreciating diversity, and –

Oh forget it.

The schools are closed. No wait that’s not true. They’re open but filled with families who fled their homes seeking refuge from the aerial strikes. The teachers I gave the workshop to won’t be teaching, they’ll be hunkered down in classrooms protecting their families or held hostage at home doing the same. Their routine of teaching children hope in a hopeless land just got a lot worse. The reality of their lives, already frighteningly tenuous, makes the stuff I showed them seem preposterously naïve.

Drawing community maps and making links with human rights.

A Grade 4 student from an UNRWA school– a young girl my son’s age – was killed by an Israeli air strike November 18; an UNRWA teacher at a boys’ school was killed in an attack last week. I think of their deaths and wonder of the futility of teaching about human rights in a place like Gaza. The young girl, had she survived, could have eventually participated in one of the toolkit activities where she and her classmates create a community map using paper and coloured pencils. They would draw different places in the community where rights are present – the mosque (the right to practice your religion, Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), their homes (the right to housing, Article 25), the beach (the right to rest, Article 24), the health clinic (the right to health, Article 25). The activity is called “Rights all around me” and is meant to show that, however dire your living conditions, there is still some scrap of dignity amidst your depressing surroundings that proves you are a human being and you deserve to be treated as such.


Now any map would be filled with bombed-out craters, black holes where homes, mosques and pathetic health clinics used to stand. I want teachers to present a positive outlook for their students but the damn bombs, the killings, the destruction always get in the way. As if that weren’t bad enough, an apparent “Israeli spy” was just killed and dragged through the streets of Gaza City by motorcycle as children looked on. I can’t help but think What the hell are you doing?

John Lennon’s Imaginepops in and out of my head a lot these days.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.

This isn’t the time for futility, I tell myself. Teachers want to learn about human rights because they know things have to change, if not for themselves then for their children. The bombs will stop, the dust will clear, the victims mourned, and somehow the children will learn a language of peace.