Sunbula: Economic Opportunity for Women on the West Bank


The conflict between Israel and Palestine is not new. It has been raging for decades. While much attention is paid to the militarization of the conflict, little is given to how it affects the day to day lives of citizens on both sides. Occupation, and the numerous political, social and economic consequences that go along with it, have led to exacerbated rates of unemployment. Curfews and transportation issues make it difficult for refugees to find and keep work or attend school. The Israeli West Bank barrier wall dividing Israel and Palestine has cut refugees and residents off from agricultural sources of revenue. The situation, which is bad enough for men, is even worse for the women, many of whom have difficulty finding any sort of employment. Sunbula, a Jerusalem based nonprofit that works with groups in Palestine, is working to change that.

Bedouin Woman weaving

What is Sunbula?

Sunbula, founded in 1996, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping marginalized women and persons with disabilities achieve social justice and economic empowerment. Sunbula does this primarily by supporting women’s cooperatives in Palestine on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In fact, they are Palestine’s largest fair trade organization. Sunbula also works with several groups in Israel as well.

Sunbula literally means “spike of wheat” in Arabic. The premise is that you can take something small, like a single grain of wheat, and turn it into something larger and more sustainable. Putting that into practice, Sunbula helps women take something small, usually some sort of skill that they already have, and turn it into a source of income for themselves and their families. Participants undergo a rigorous five-month training program where they learn business skills such as product design, production, quality control, accounting and management techniques. With the help of Sunbula staff members, participants formulate business plans and put them into practice. Sunbula helps them secure funding for their projects, set up production and find markets for their products. Recognizing that strength and business opportunities come in numbers, women who Bedouin pillowhave trained together often end up working together through cooperatives Sunbula helps them form.

Who does Sunbula Help?

Sunbula works with marginalized populations in refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip of Palestine as well as Israel. Sunbula has helped over 2,000 refugees (the majority of whom are women) earn much needed income. The benefits of Sunbula’s programs extend outward to reach the families of those people, meaning the lives of another 10,000 people, and the communities in which they live, have been touched by Sunbula.

Woman sewing

Lina is one of those women. Lina grew up in Balata, the largest refugee camp in Palestine’s West Bank. She is one of an estimated 30,000 people crammed into a space that is about .25 square kilometers in size. Four years ago, Lina was forced to quit university because she couldn’t afford bus fare. Lina heard about Sunbula from a neighbor and enrolled in their five-month product-development training course.

The business and skills training they received from Sunbula enabled Lina and her fellow trainees to form the Haneen Cooperative. The women of the cooperative, now 20 plus strong, are able to make a modest income from a skill they already had – sewing. Lina is using some of her earnings to put herself through university.

Mariam is another woman who received training through Sunbula. She is a member of the Lakiya Bedouin Weaving Project and works at one of the Project’s six sewing centers. Mariam belongs to one of the most marginalized communities on the West Bank, the Bedouin of the Negev. The Lakiya Bedouin Weaving Project has changed her life – teaching her new skills, providing her with an income that allows her to send her children to school and giving her a feeling of empowerment in her family, community and country. Mariam has worked her way up to production manager and is proud of her new found abilities to drive a car and use a computer.

Thanks to Sunbula, hundreds of women like Mariam and Lian – who had been living in the camps and struggling to get by – finally have the opportunity to earn wages and provide for their families.

How You Can Help

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You can help by purchasing a product made by one of the 18 cooperatives that Sunbula works with. You can products from the Surif Women’s Cooperative and Sindyanna of Galilee at Ten Thousand Villages and Global Exchange. In addition to purchasing their products online, Sunbula also runs two craft stores in Jerusalem.

For more information about Sunbula, visit their website or check out the Sunbula Facebook page.

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