Women with a vision: the cooperative cooking change for their community

We're celebrating International Women's Day with the story of an innovative group of women in the West Bank.

They're inspiring change in their communities through a cooperative that not only provides nutritious food but quality early childhood education for the children in their communities.

The women live in a small town near Hebron, an area with high rates of poverty and little infrastructure with which the community can improve livelihoods. Water is scarce, making it difficult to farm, and access to food is unreliable, which is damaging to the development of young children.

It's difficult to move around the West Bank and in some remote areas transportation can be expensive and unreliable, so people can have trouble finding and keeping jobs to support their families. Unwilling to accept these circumstances, the women joined forces to address the needs of their community. They created an association, a cooperative for women, with the goal of providing better opportunities for the community and a better future for their children.

One of the women who played an active role in forming the association is Abeer, a university graduate whose first job was at a local yoghurt factory, where she learnt the ins and outs of food processing. She went on to become a teacher, and a mother, before joining with the other women to create the association.

Abeer and her colleagues used their skills to start a food processing factory, producing healthy food that they could sell in local school canteens. At the time, the canteens mostly sold unhealthy food, including chips, lollies and other highly-processed foods. Abeer and her team went to the Ministry of Education and Health and brought them on board with their plan.

While they felt strongly about being an independent organisation, they needed some support to help pay the costs of renting out the school canteens, so they approached World Vision about giving them a hand up. World Vision agreed to pay their rent until they made enough profit to do so themselves. Their business was so successful that they were able to do so after just one year.

One of the women involved in the association baking salty pastries for a school canteen. Photo: Hind Shraydeh/World Vision

Not only does the association provide healthier food for children and income for local women, it is also a way to build relationships within the community.

"Many women in the group and the community have a bachelor's degree but can't find jobs. We encourage them to be members of the association," says Abeer.

Abeer's mother Zakia even got involved. When her husband fell ill and was unable to work, a job at the food processing factory helped pay for Abeer's sister's school expenses. Zakia is very proud of the effort her daughter has put into the project.

Word about the group is spreading thanks to their involvement in the annual Grape Festival in a nearby town. The association made and sold a variety of grape products including jam, raisins and Palestinian dibis, and by the end of the festival, the products were sold out and residents across the West Bank knew about the women's incredible work.

"The best way to reach people is through food," says Manar, one of the Association's leaders.

Not satisfied with improving the nutrition of local children, the association has now started a kindergarten for families in the remote area. Sixty children attended the kinder in its first year, but the student population grew to 110 a year later. In fact, the school has such a good reputation even parents with other options are choosing to send their children to this kindergarten.

What began as a small local initiative has truly grown; the association started with 21 members and now boasts 45. Just as the women support their own town by providing jobs, education and improved nutrition, the town and community are also being inspired by their commitment and passion.