Civil society in action

Ethiopian women learn to lobby the Knesset on how to eliminate the scourge of wife killing.

Ethiopian 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ethiopian 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I recently had the privilege of observing the inner workings of Israeli democracy in action. Thirteen women, all Ethiopian immigrants, were gathered in a hotel conference room in Tel Aviv, listening intently as a young sabra explained the ways ordinary citizens can influence the people in power. These listeners, some in pants and sandals, others in long skirts and head scarves, were moved to try and influence our decision-makers to take action about the growing number of Ethiopian immigrant women killed by their husbands in the last 10 years. The subject had been a taboo in the Ethiopian community. But when a fellow social activist became the 11th woman in 10 years to be killed by her husband, these women - all active in Ethiopian women's organizations - had had enough. They felt an urgent need to act. With the help of Shatil, a social change organization, they organized themselves into a coalition to address the issue as a group. The workshop in the Tel Aviv hotel was a weekend-long gathering aimed at teaching women how to translate their ideas into action. They had been meeting for two years, educating themselves about the issue, deciding on strategy, building alliances with government bodies and NGOs. They wanted to treat the problem at its roots and to do this, they needed the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency on their side. They wanted Ethiopian immigrants to be educated while still in Ethiopia about the kind of society and especially the kinds of family mores that awaited them in their new land. They wanted the two years or more Ethiopians spend in absorption centers to be used for teaching men employable skills in addition to the Hebrew and Judaism lessons they already receive. They wanted many more Amharic-speaking social workers, and they wanted translators in police stations and courts. They wanted people who work with Ethiopian families in distress to have a deep understanding of the culture. BACK IN the hotel conference room, Shlomit Asheri, a Shatil lobby consultant, told the women what they needed in order to effectively convince their leaders: "First and foremost," she said, "You need an issue that affects you, that you care about and that you know needs a systemic solution." These women had that. Then Asheri listed the numbers one through eight on the board. She wrote the word "lobby," the subject of the workshop, after the number five. "There are seven other ways to influence decision-makers," she told her rapt audience. "What are they?" Slowly, she drew ideas out of these women, who in Ethiopia would have spent their time cultivating vegetables, weaving baskets, embroidering clothes, making clay pots, caring for little ones. "You make a lot of noise," several women said. Asheri's pony tail bounced as she nodded enthusiastically. "Public campaigns," she writes on the board next to number four. "Tell everyone you know," said another. "Raise awareness," Shlomit said and wrote the words next to #3. Finally, they get to "lobby," the subject of the day, and Shlomit says, "The first and most important thing you have to do if you want to influence a decision maker is to..." The women fill in the blank with various suggestions, which Shlomit acknowledges, but none of them make it to the blackboard. "Listen," she finally writes. "The first thing you have to do is listen." THE COALITION, which calls itself Yachdav (Together) for the Prevention of Violence in the Ethiopian Family, already has convinced the Knesset to take up the issue of domestic violence in the Ethiopian community. In a joint June meeting of the Knesset committees on the status of women and immigration, which they pushed for and addressed, they described the problem to gathered MKs as well as government and law enforcement officials. They demanded far-reaching government action to address not the symptoms but what they see as the roots of the problem: culture shock, ignorance about the gender equality that awaits them in Israel, high unemployment rates among men, and the lack of cultural awareness and sensitivity among officials who deal with domestic violence. At the meeting's conclusion, MK Gidon Sa'ar, the chairman, fired off a series of decisions which a staff person scrambled to write on a legal pad: speak to the Broadcasting Authority about more Amharic airtime; get the Absorption Ministry to approve research into the matter; get the courts to find solutions for men who are ordered to leave their homes; hold another Knesset meeting, this time in the presence of the Ministers of Absorption and Welfare (which indeed was subsequently held.) At the weekend seminar in Tel Aviv, the women in the coalition learned how to follow up on the Knesset meetings to make sure that the promises would be delivered. In addition, they learned more strategy skills, how to present themselves and their work, how to create ties and work with relevant professionals and institutions. This process - ordinary citizens banding together to tackle an issue, acquiring skills to work on it effectively, strategizing about what's needed and then meeting with government officials to make sure they do their part - is known in the NGO world as the work of civil society. I first encountered the phrase while I was tooling around the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) Web site a couple of years ago and wasn't sure what it meant. Now I know that civil society is Riki from Haifa and Yael from Or Yehuda and Belainesh from Kiryat Malachi putting their heads and energies together to do something about a problem they care passionately about. It's the beating heart of democracy, and it is built on the freedoms a democracy guarantees. As Israel celebrates 60 years of statehood, we can also celebrate a vibrant civil society that is growing daily. Thousands of non-profit organizations and grass roots groups in every part of the country are working to advance causes both national and local. Ethiopian Jews did not know wife murder in Ethiopia. It is one of the side effects of a problematic absorption. The fact that members of the community are rising up to address the problem means that the absorption of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel is not a total failure. The writer is a journalist who works in Shatil's development department. [email protected]