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Women’s Employment Stories, a Source of Knowledge

Mahut Center works to improve the economic situation of low-income and marginalized women in the Israeli employment market and to fulfill women’s aspirations of becoming economically independent. Spotlight on correspondents of the Permanent Forum on Extreme Poverty in the World.

In “Women Workers in a Precarious Employment Market”, women – both Israeli Palestinian and Jewish - narrate experiences of fatigue, pain, vulnerability, anger, and helplessness side by side with stories about coping, surviving, and struggling for a better future, for them and for their children.

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From the section entitled, “Coping with Life in Poverty”:

“Poverty is when a human being’s basic needs are not fulfilled,” says Shlomit [one of the women interviewed]. Life in poverty dictates a survival mechanism that moves between frugality, shrewdness, and improvisation. Such life demands constantly making decisions concerning priorities as well as repressing personal needs – “The kids come first.” Poverty has an implicit influence on time management: life becomes focused on the present – “from paycheck to paycheck” – while time and careful planning are needed for making day-to-day decisions; as Shlomit further says, “I had to think three times before buying those shoes. The decision to buy takes more time.”

In fact, for impoverished women, poverty is a job: every expense necessitates calculations, discussions, and decisions; traveling from place to place takes more time; they have to go to faraway markets and shops in order to find cheaper commodities; they spend much time handling bureaucracy with institutes and authorities, and more.

At the same time, poverty has an effect on consciousness; its strong presence in the inner space of the soul is a source of constant worrying and distress and it serves as a point of reference for women’s views of themselves. Shlomit puts it clearly: “Poverty, for me, is not only a matter of necessity, it’s also something in the mind. The fact that I know that I can’t … thinking that I want [something] and I can’t [have it].”

Natalie: “Some days, I’m not in a good mood anymore, and suddenly it comes to my mind: What am I doing at home now? I have to go out. [But] where would I go? To go out you need money. For money you need to work. It’s on my mind all the time. How, where will I find money to bring home? I’m alone in this struggle. It’s a constant struggle for survival, when I need to calculate and tell them [my kids], ’Don’t eat this bun now because you’ll have nothing in the morning.’ ’This week I bought you cornflakes, next week there won’t be any.’ It’s one instead of the other. This week we need other things, more important ones. [I make these kind of calculations] every moment, every minute and every second. We have no choice, so we manage. We don’t buy clothes every day, and not [even] every month. We ’wear a uniform’, as they say. Everything you have, every penny you got, you know you won’t spend on yourself; first, you spend it on the kids. Because for me it’s more important that they advance; that everything will be good for them; that they won’t feel they need something. So I maneuver.”

A life of financial-employment insecurity is not just a life of meager subsistence in the present. Its implications reach far into the future: the way it is perceived, the way women prepare for it, worry about it, and develop hopes concerning it; all these are an integral part of the consequences of living in poverty:

Zivit: “I can’t see a future. Today I sometimes cry because of these youths who also cannot see a future. My son, God bless him, needs to study for years in order to reach some level where he can say he survives. Today if you don’t have your family’s support, you can’t do anything (…) and I can’t see a future. It is the worst thing [that can happen] in a person’s life, in this world, whether it’s a young person, an adult, an elderly [person], who doesn’t have a tomorrow. Whenever people breathe, they need to know that tomorrow they may be doing something. Because if they don’t have plans, then they have nothing to wake up for; it’s better that they stay in bed. And their kid watches them sleep, so their kid says, ’If my dad’s sleeping and my mom’s sleeping, how will I live? How will I make it? What will happen with me?’ And the kids become depressed later, it’s a turning wheel.”

These testimonies raise the issue of the implications of unemployment on women’s relationships with their children. Women describe how they see themselves through their children’s eyes – as incompetent and useless, undeserving of respect and appreciation – and the resulting embarrassment. They tell about their children’s fears of becoming like them and about their own fear of becoming a destructive role model – a desperate and hopeless parenting model.

Zivit: “I don’t know how people manage to live on 1,500 … on 3,000 [Shekels]. These are such small sums when you hear about people making 100,000 Shekels a month. Once I was at the house of this woman, I used to volunteer to help her. She was disabled. She was so poor, she wouldn’t [flush] the toilet. She wouldn’t do the dishes so she could save some water here, some there. Soon she would be saving on air, and that would be the end – all so that she could manage to live on those 1,500 [Shekels].” In public discourse, impoverished women are most often presented as hopeless victims, as miserable whiners. As a result, the public view, which is so accustomed to viewing them and labeling them as such, becomes indifferent and judgmental. It seems that society cannot (and maybe does not want to) view them differently – perceive whatever is not hopelessness, passiveness, or weakness. Apparently, it is easier to narrow the public view on socially vulnerable women and to disregard the many diverse ways in which they cope with their circumstances. These methods of coping are their attempts to build a different reality, to actively and continually fight the debilitating and harmful processes, to empower themselves, to plan for solutions, and to bring about a change.

Out of limited opportunities and freedom of choice, these women look for the Good and fight for it: they search for a sense of belonging, demand security and meaningful actions, and strive to create a better future.

Excerpts from “Women Worker’s in a Precarious Employment Market”, report published by Mahut Center, Israel.

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