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MIDEAST: Not School Time Yet for Bedouin Girls

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours

ABU TULUL, Negev Desert, Sep 11 2011 (IPS) - For mother of five Shimaa al-Aasam, providing her children with the opportunity to complete their education despite a severe lack of classrooms in their Bedouin community is of prime importance.

“It’s a tragedy. Learning is the most important thing in the world,” al-Aasam, a resident of the Bedouin village of Abu Tulul in the Negev desert, told IPS. “If they continue their studies, they can go so much further in their lives.”

Approximately 12,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel live in the area of Abu Tulul. Presently, 2,600 students attend three schools in the area, from elementary through junior high school levels. Abu Tulul students previously attended high school in the nearby Bedouin town Segev Shalom, but they are no longer welcomed there due to lack of space.

Al-Aasam says that because there is no high school in Abu Tulul, most of the children – especially the girls, who are discouraged from traveling far distances to get to school – are forced to stop their studies after grade nine.

“The problem here is they don’t encourage the girls to travel out of the village to go to school,” al- Aasam, who herself finished high school in her hometown of Tel Sheva but did not continue on to university, said. “I will help my daughter to complete her studies, even if (the school is) far away from the village. I don’t want my daughter to be like me.”

Abu Tulul is one of eight Bedouin villages that were granted recognised status by the Israeli government in 2003 as part of the Abu Basma Regional Council. Despite recognition on paper, however, Abu Tulul continues to suffer from the problems prevalent in unrecognised Bedouin villages throughout the Negev region, including a lack of running water, electricity, paved roads, adequate healthcare and educational facilities, and other services normally provided by the state.

In 2007, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Interior and the Israel Land Administration to build a high school in Abu Tulul and open it by September 2009. Despite this ruling, the high school has not been built yet, and the Israeli authorities say they are still in the planning stages.

“The planning process is taking years and still we do not know when it will finish,” said Sawsan Zaher, an attorney with Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, who is representing 35 female students from Abu Tulul in their petition to the Israeli Supreme Court.

Zaher told IPS that in a hearing Sep. 5, the Court ordered the state to provide it with a timeline for the school’s completion by the end of December 2011.

“We are talking about students and pupils that need the school, and that have a constitutional right according to the law to learn in high school. Especially when we are talking about the context of Abu Tulul, where 70 to 80 percent of girls drop out of high school because they do not have a high school in their area,” Zaher said.

“I asked the court to intervene in order to rule that the planning process should be finished in a specific time in order to not bring more damage to the students.”

Presently, it is estimated that 55 percent of Bedouin students drop out of school before graduating high school, compared to a national Israeli average of just 4.6 percent. The drop out rate is most alarming, however, among Bedouin girls, at 77 percent.

According to Hanan Alsanah, the education and community programmes manager at Sidreh, an organisation that aims to empower and educate Bedouin women in the Negev, both practical and cultural factors influence Bedouin girls’ lack of access to education.

“The first level is there are no bus services in the unrecognised villages and there are no high schools for the people in the unrecognised villages. And if there are schools in these villages, there is not enough space for all the people there,” Alsanah told IPS.

“It’s also our culture. In our culture, families prefer to invest in boys’ education, rather than in girls’ education. So if they have money, they prefer to invest that in the boy. But in fact, we are trying to give the message that investing in girls’ education is not helping only the girls, but helping all the family.”

Alsanah said that raising awareness among both Bedouin men and women about the importance of educating their children, and building a local infrastructure that would make learning easily accessible to girls is crucial for future generations.

“Most of the girls that we meet in the unrecognised villages and the recognised villages, they want to continue their schooling but it depends on their education achievements, on the economic situation in the family, and also on whether the family encourages the girls to go to high school; is it accepted or not?” she said.

“It’s very important for the girls to have a high school in the village, to give them the opportunity to get an education. In Abu Tulul, I believe that they will manage to build a high school but still, it will take a long time and many girls will pay a big price.”

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