“A Strong Woman Equals 100 Men”: Doa Wadi Fights for Gender Equality in Palestine
Doa Wadi is a professional with 25 years of experience in business leadership and development. Having invested 11 years in microfinance institutions, she has enabled many women’s small and medium enterprises’ access to finance through lendings and grants.
Since 2008, she has occupied the position of the Executive Director of Business Women Forum Palestine (BWF), a non-profit association established in 2006, to help “strengthen the role of businesswomen as leaders in the Palestinian economy through advocacy, networking, and the provision of business services.”
BWF has members, and beneficiaries from all the West Bank cities and Gaza, and is one of the leading NGO’s for women economic empowerment in Palestine.
Since 2006, BWF has helped female entrepreneurs build capacities and skills through tailored training and workshops provided by the Business Development Services Center (BDC), the technical arm of BWF.
It has also encourages young entrepreneurs to join a Business Plan Competition (BPC) for women-owned SME’s, an Internship Program to qualify them for the labour market, and a Role Model Program organized in cooperation with schools and universities. It has also advocated women issues in the business sector through the drafting of concept papers and policy notes through the BWF Advocacy Unit and organized hundreds of workshops, seminars, and round table discussions to help women reach decision making positions.
BWF is also a founding member of several national and regional forums such as the General Assembly of The Palestinian Investment Fund (PIF), and the MENA Business Women Network (BWN).
Doa Wadi is also a speaker and a facilitator at important international events and attended several UNIDO’s (United Nations Industrial Development Organization) conferences and roundtable discussions, sharing her experience, and discussing best practices.
Your life must have been full of turns and challenges. Could you describe your journey?
I was raised in a family where both parents believed in women, and I grew up to be a very strong woman in a community where this was not acceptable. After I finished high school, the first Intifada happened and I couldn’t go to university, which was my dream. The university reopened after three years, and I finished my bachelors degree in four years. I wanted to speed up the process.
How did your environment react to you receiving an education?
My dad was often told by other men in the Al-Bireh community – where most women used to marry at a young age- “Why do you invest in educating your daughters? They will end up marrying, it’s a waste of money. You should buy land instead”. My father never listened to those men and continued to fully support our education. The fact that he has always acknowledged the importance of educating girls had a big effect on our personality.
What happened after you left school?
I thought the private sector would be looking for someone like me, but the shock came when I stayed four months at home looking for a job; I started as an admin assistant with OXFAM Quebec at that time. With my first salary I got my driving license. After one year, and for the following 11 years, I moved within the same organization, from administrator to area manager working with marginalized women to start and grow their business. During these 12 years, I sharpened my personality and learnt a lot from the fieldwork about the main challenges facing women in Palestine. It might have been my destiny to work with women from the beginning of my professional life.
Today, I am the CEO of BWF (Business Women Forum Palestine) and I realize I’ve spent 25 years empowering women.
What are the main challenges that the Palestinian women face?
The political situation under occupation multiplied the burden on women which leads to daily struggle when starting or growing businesses. Then social patriarchal norms that hinder gender equality, especially in marginalized communities, which leads to dependent women with no financial independency or decision-making.
The last challenge is that women are not taught or raised to be leaders; therefore, they are scared to be. And the personality of a female leader is forged in a democratic family, where also women’s voices are heard, and not only men’s, where women have a point, where they are taken into consideration. This is an essential step forward, and we can do it. There is a proverb in Arabic that translates as “a strong woman equals 100 men”. I have raised my daughter to be a strong woman and have independence when it comes to her finances and decisions.
How does BWF pursue gender equality?
In 2018, BWF advocated through all available platforms for change to three main regulations that deny women their rights to have custody of their children, to have their own bank accounts, transfer their children to different schools and apply for their passports. BWF took the initiative and had a great role in advancing the dialogue with the prime minister’s Office on these reforms which affect all women. The reforms were announced on March 5, 2019.
What are the results you are most proud of?
Through my career life, I started with two organizations from scratch. It was very challenging, but a big achievement. When you go through such a process, you see your vision expand and your ambition grow, year after year. And, you eventually witness the positive impact of your beliefs and hard work on the lives of these women entrepreneurs and their families, projects, and surroundings. We need to be mentors for the less fortunate out there. These women needed the right tools, and that’s what we did. Now, those women are seen as role models in their villages, even by their own husbands. Ten years ago, we had to get their husband’s approval for them to even come to the workshops.
Gender equality translates into financial independence. If you control the budget, then you can decide for your daughters to be educated rather than get married at an early age. These women employ their family members and pay them, at a time when the unemployment rate among women is incredibly high. They can change their lives and the ones around them.
What do you think about UNIDO’s activity in supporting women empowerment and what do you think about the conference ‘Women In Industry and Innovation’?
UNIDO organised many conferences and round table meetings, where I was a speaker and shared experience and discussed best practices, we attended and even spoke at some of them. This virtual experience is a real challenge, but because of Covid19, we need to devise an emergency plan to help women who need it.
What is your final message for Palestinian women?
I say to Palestinian mothers: invest in your daughters, your daughters will change the future and they will be the leaders of the future. Even if they’re living in a patriarchal family, a supportive mother can change everything.
Main image courtesy of BWF / Facebook.
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