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Educating Bedouin women to enhance lives




“The key reason for doing so is that we recognise that women play a very important role in community development,” explains Dianna Yach, chairperson of the fund. “Very often, if a woman is educated, she plays a major role in uplifting the lives of the wider community.

“When I’ve talked to the Bedouin scholars, they have identified how, because of their studies, they’re able to help their families and friends to access state services that they are entitled to, which include things like education and health.”

The Mauerberger family was involved in the establishment of BGU in 1969. Their tradition of striving for social justice through several upliftment programmes, both here and in Israel, dates back to 1938. That’s when the family patriarch, leading South African industrialist and philanthropist Morris Mauerberger, established a clinic for workers on the Cape Flats who had difficulty accessing state hospitals because of transport problems and poverty.

His granddaughter, Dianna Yach, is herself no slouch when it comes to pursuing social justice. She says she was “always devoted to, and passionate about, human rights and equality, and making these a reality”.

She left South Africa for London in 1976 because of apartheid and returned here in 2012. In addition to taking up the reins of the MFF the following year, she is adjunct professor of law at the University of Cape Town (UCT), a member of the UCT Council and chair of the UCT Alumni Advisory Board.

Yach has adopted a hands-on approach to doing good, visiting the BGU students annually. “It’s not so much doing good,” she says, “it’s recognising that as ethical Jews, we need to reach out and assist in social justice initiatives, helping communities to make a difference in their world.

“One of the things we’re very proud of is the way BGU has taken care of the Bedouin women students in creating an environment which is safe and secure on campus, and in integrating them into the mainstream so that they don’t feel isolated. The university also recognises that when the students go home, they may not have electricity, so it makes the library facilities available for longer hours and gives the students laptops.”

The scholarships are part of a much larger policy of BGU to offer the Bedouin students a university education, says Professor Steven Rosen, vice-president for external affairs at BGU. The Negev has a Bedouin population numbering more than 200 000. It is one of the “most depressed” populations in Israel, says Rosen.

He adds that about 50% live in urban settlements; the rest live in “unrecognised villages” which, in many cases, are not connected to water and electricity. Bedouin high schools are “poor” and not of the same quality as many of the Jewish high schools.

“The mandate of BGU has, from the outset, been to develop the Negev and attend to all its groups,” says Rosen. “The Bedouin are a major minority group who deserve an education just like everyone else. It became one of our social goals to facilitate their integration into the modern Israeli economy.”

Rosen says there’s been a “huge change” in the general perception of education in this community. “This is a traditional society and there was a lot of opposition to women studying 20 years ago.We’ve made major inroads there – I think most of the Bedouin parents are quite proud that their daughters attend university. This is seen as something to strive for.”

While there are no restrictions on what the students can study, in the past few years BGU has tried to direct those students who show an aptitude for the sciences to go that route as they end up making a much greater economic contribution to the Bedouin community, says Rosen.

“The students we receive are the cream of the crop, but you have to understand the obstacles that these kids have to overcome. Their high schools don’t give them adequate educational tools to be able to function well in the university.

“They’re lacking in English, mathematics and quantitative analysis, and for many of them, their Hebrew isn’t up to par. So, we have academic programmes that are designed to address those problems in their basic education.”

The first female Bedouin doctor in the world (now a gynaecologist) graduated from BGU’s medical school. The former chairman of its computer science department was a Bedouin, as was the former chairman of its department of pharmacology.

Among other programmes that the MFF funds is the One Voice movement in Israel and the West Bank that trains Arab and Israeli leaders for peace-building in their respective communities.

Another MFF-supported initiative is situated at Tel Aviv University and sees Palestinian physicians enhancing their skills in areas of need in Gaza or the West Bank – for example, in emergency medicine or paediatrics. And at Hebrew University, the MFF funds an international programme for African women at the agricultural faculty.

Herby Rosenberg, former chairman and vice-president of the SA Associates of BGU, said that it was “important to record the outstanding contribution of this very generous Cape Town family. I hope that their example serves as an inspiration to others to do likewise.”

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