The staff of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling taken outside the WCLAC offices in Ramallah


Courtesy of the WCLAC

Blog Post

The Many Missions of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling (WCLAC)

Established in Jerusalem in 1991, the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling (WCLAC) is an independent, Palestinian, nongovernmental organization. Its aim is to develop a democratic Palestinian society based on the principles of gender equality and social justice.

The WCLAC fights battles on multiple fronts. Since 1991, the organization has tackled discrimination and violence against women within Palestinian society in a world where Israeli occupation limits their freedom and independence. The WCLAC views both these issues as equally important and inherently linked. Military occupation limits women’s security, and Palestinian society’s fight for independence means women’s rights are de-prioritized.

Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling

A feminist center that addresses the causes and consequences of gender-based violence within Palestinian society

The WCLAC fights battles on multiple fronts.

Randa Siniora has served as general director of the WCLAC since 2015, but began lobbying for women’s rights at home as a strong-minded teenager. Siniora witnessed her three older sisters denied permission to go certain places because of their gender. They would accept it, but when Siniora became a teenager, she did not. She’d challenge her father to a debate, and ask him to share his viewpoints, and then she would share hers. If he accepted her arguments, then she would be given permission to go out. More often than not, Siniora was successful.

Although her father believed she’d be a lawyer, Siniora studied sociology and anthropology at Birzeit University in Ramallah, followed by the American University in Cairo. She wrote her master’s thesis on female textile workers in West Bank factories that produced goods for Israeli companies, which set her on the path to advocate for women’s rights.

From 1998 to 2001, Siniora served as the head of networking and advocacy at the WCLAC, followed by a long and varied career documenting human rights violations across the occupied Palestinian territories before landing back with the WCLAC as general director. Today, she is one of the most respected voices on women’s rights in Palestine.

In recent decades, Palestinian women’s rights have made slow progress. As occupation has tightened its grip and trauma engulfed the Palestinian people, women have suffered more, and in some cases their rights have regressed. This makes it all the more important that Siniora and her team celebrate the small wins.

Tireless in the Fight for Women’s Rights

For this profile, Siniora speaks from her office in Ramallah. The WCLAC was founded and has offices in Jerusalem; however, the construction of the Separation Wall in 2001 forced the organization to move its main operations to Ramallah, which is easier for most Palestinians to access. On a day-to-day basis, Siniora works on social legal aid services, litigates family matters, works with victims of gender-based violence, and helps women who are asking for divorce, child custody, and maintenance.

Randa Siniora, general director of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling, at her desk at the WCLAC office in Ramallah in the West Bank

Randa Siniora, general director of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling, at her desk in the WCLAC office in Ramallah


Courtesy of the WCLAC

“We are also trying to influence policies and legislation through advocacy work and lobbying with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and soon with [Palestinian] elections,” Siniora says. “The main focus is to change policies, change legislation, and change the laws that are enforced rather than focusing only on the individuals. We intervene with the annual development plans of the [Palestinian] government to ensure that the gender component is mainstream.” In short, they aim to fix the system.

One of the WCLAC’s recent wins is the introduction of emergency shelters for victims of gender-based violence or abuse across the entirety of the occupied West Bank. “We were the initiators of Family Protection Units in Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Nablus, and now the Palestinian police is convinced we need them across the entire West Bank,” Siniora says.

The WCLAC’s work is tireless. Women across the West Bank, on both sides of the wall, face a myriad of challenges and suffer from the hidden violence of the occupation. For example, in East Jerusalem, it is common that children are arrested, and instead of being sent to Israeli detention centers, their lawyers negotiate for them to be put under house arrest.

“This really impacts women,” Siniora says. “Many abandon their jobs and are forced to become the prison guards of their own children at home.” It means the children aren’t able to attend school and can lead to domestic violence, as parents may have to physically stop the child from leaving the home. Violating house arrest would mean a hefty fine for the family and potential jail time for the child.

“Additionally, if children are arrested, the mother is the first to be blamed,” Siniora says. “She’s told she should be more careful and not allow her child to go out of the home.”

“If children are arrested [by Israeli security or police], the mother is the first to be blamed. She’s told she should be more careful and not allow her child to go out of the home.”

Randa Siniora, General Director, WCLAC

Home demolitions, which human rights groups have long said is a form of collective punishment, also have a huge, hidden impact on women.

Israel has long maintained a policy of demolishing Palestinian homes for various reasons, both those built illegally (without permits) and those belonging to families of individuals who commit "security" crimes against Israelis (punitive demolitions). As building permits are near impossible to obtain, Palestinians are left with no choice but to roll the dice and build illegally. This year the Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has accelerated demolitions in East Jerusalem even more aggressively. 

When a family’s home is demolished, they are often forced to move in with in-laws. This hinders the privacy of women and girls and negates the small amount of sovereignty they might have had at home.

Cramped living quarters increase the likelihood of domestic violence, and women with PA IDs who are married to men with Israeli permanent-resident IDs are at greater risk.

Photo Essay Ben-Gvir Unleashes a Wave of Home Demolitions across East Jerusalem

Home demolitions take place in Palestinian neighborhoods across the city; Jabal Mukkabir is targeted and its residents take to the streets.

Heavy Caseload of Women in “Mixed Marriages”

“Seventy percent of the cases WCLAC addresses in our Jerusalem office are from Palestinian women from the rest of the West Bank who are married to Jerusalemites,” Siniora says. “Many of them endure or tolerate domestic violence because of the dual legal system that is applied to annexed East Jerusalem and other parts of the occupied [Palestinian] territory.”

Given that family unification was frozen in 2003, women from the rest of the West Bank depend on their husbands to apply for what is called a stay permit in order to stay in East Jerusalem. (Otherwise, they can only apply for a short-term entry permit typically valid for a few hours.) The husband must go to the Israeli Ministry of Interior to renew this permit every six months or annually. If the woman separates from or divorces her husband, the likelihood is that she will lose the ability to see her children (living in East Jerusalem) because she no longer qualifies for a stay permit as someone holding a PA ID. Her fate lies in the hands of her husband, who controls the applications and permits. “So in this situation, the woman has to choose between enduring violence at home or losing custody of her children and the right to even see her children,” Siniora says. “This is where the combination of patriarchal Palestinian society and Israeli policies of residency rights allows men to dominate the lives of women.”

Women who live in Area C in the West Bank, which is under full Israeli military control, are also at high risk of violence. If they farm the land surrounding their homes, they are likely to be attacked by settlers, who are becoming increasingly bold and aggressive.

Hope amidst Backlash

The WCLAC’s services are a lifeline for women across Palestine. They offer free legal consultation and services as well as emergency shelters for women desperate to escape violence in the home. “In many of the cases that we litigate, we win the cases,” Siniora says. “But there is a lack of awareness [by women] that they have rights and that they can get free legal aid and services.”

The WCLAC continues its support for women through programs including the Socio-Legal Services Program, which provides social and legal services to women and their families; the Advocacy Program, which strengthens women’s right of access to justice and attempts to eliminate discriminatory policies; and the Community Empowerment and Mobilization Program, which increases the social responsibility of the Palestinian community toward women’s rights.

The latter initiative is one of the WCLAC’s most powerful. The team increases the awareness of local communities on discrimination and violence against women and mobilizes community members to initiate feminist and human rights discourse. These programs support local grassroots movements across Palestine, strengthening the WCLAC’s reach and raising awareness for its cause.

The WCLAC’s services are a lifeline for women across Palestine.

The staff of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling taken outside the WCLAC offices in Ramallah

The staff of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling taken outside the WCLAC offices in Ramallah


Courtesy of the WCLAC

Resistance from Within

The work of the WCLAC has nevertheless been met with hostility from within Palestinian society, Siniora says. In recent years, the WCLAC’s priority has been passing the Family Protection Bill. The bill addresses many social issues that affect the West Bank’s most vulnerable, including the legal age for marriage, gender inequality in inheritance, divorce, gender-based violence, and domestic violence. Upon submitting the bill for ratification, Siniora and her colleagues were subject to a barrage of online abuse, with critics saying the bill promoted Western values and was not aligned with Palestinian culture and Islamic law.

“There was a huge counter-campaign on social media attacking feminist and women organizations,” Siniora says. “They said we’re calling for the destruction of the family and that we’re bringing Western ideals to Palestinian society.”

The PA used that campaign to argue that the Family Protection Bill was too controversial and required more debate and discussion, thus stalling its progression. “So we see some regression and serious attacks against feminist and women’s rights defenders in Palestinian society,” Siniora says.

But Siniora has dedicated her life to advocate for Palestinian women’s rights, and she doesn’t plan to back down. “I began when I was in my twenties, and now I am in my early sixties,” she says. “So it is frustrating, but I feel like we have made some changes. We have to keep up our energy, and always have hope.”

Hope is at the core of the WCLAC and the women it serves, and despite the many setbacks, it has achieved a lot. It has set up shelters for women across the West Bank, developed a maintenance fund for families in need, initiated family protection units within the Palestinian police, drafted the Family Protection Bill, and helped thousands of women out of unthinkable situations. “The minimum is that we help the individual person,” Siniora says. “When a woman comes into our office with a box of sweets or chocolates because we’ve been able to help her and protect her life, and now she is safe—this, for us, is success.”