Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Gaza Siege Batters Women

Mel Frykberg

GAZA CITY, Jul 16 2008 (IPS) - The siege of Gaza has led to a sharp rise in the number of battered and sexually abused women and children in the Gaza Strip, say members of the Gaza Community Health Programme (GCHP).

Dima Nashashibi Credit: Mel Frykberg

Dima Nashashibi Credit: Mel Frykberg

Manal Awad, director of the women's empowerment project of the GCHP, said reports of domestic violence had been slowly increasing since the outbreak of the second Intifadah (uprising) in 2000 but had spiked dramatically during the siege of Gaza over the last year.

"We are not sure of the exact numbers as it is extremely difficult to get the exact figures. Gaza's, and to a lesser extent the West Bank's, conservative society relies heavily on the extended family to resolve issues internally, and any outside interference in private domestic matters is regarded as taboo," said Awad.

"Even when we go house to house interviewing people, the women are not free to speak as the men, many of whom are unemployed, sit in on the interviews," she added.

Taghreed, a woman of 38 who works as a prostitute in Jerusalem, told IPS she had escaped an abusive marriage where she was raped and beaten until some of the bones in her face were broken. She endured the abuse for years until her children were old enough to leave home and fend for themselves.

"I could not take it any more and so I was forced to escape my home in Nablus (in the northern West Bank) and come to Jerusalem. At times the beatings were so bad I feared for my life.

"I have no choice but to work as a prostitute because I was married young and never finished school. But at least now I am independent and I can care for myself, and nobody can dictate to me any more or beat me."

The Palestinian Bureau of Statistics (PBS) released a report in March last year that said 24 percent of women in the West Bank had been physically abused and 12 percent sexually abused over 2004-2006. The figures for Gaza were 23 percent and 10 percent respectively.

Malaeka Alyan from Sawa All the Women Together Today and Tomorrow, a Palestinian rape crisis and domestic violence centre in Jerusalem, told IPS that these figures are just the tip of the iceberg. Her centre, she says, has seen a 400 percent increase in calls for help during 2006-2007 from the time the organisation opened in 2000.

"The occupation and the siege are major factors," Awad says. "Men in our patriarchal society are regarded as the heads of the household, and because many men who used to be employed in Israel lost their jobs they feel emasculated and frustrated, and the easiest way to take out their anger and frustration is on women, who are the weakest part of our society."

According to the UN Development Fund for Women, changes in the economy, social structures and household composition are resulting in a "crisis of masculinity" in many parts of the world.

Poverty, and economic and social change may be eroding the traditional role of men as providers, leading to men seeking affirmation of their masculinity in other ways – such as irresponsible sexual behaviour or domestic violence.

Dr Marwan Diab, a psychologist with the GCHP, says the situation in Gaza has been worsened by the psychological, physical and emotionally destructive experiences of torture that many Gazan men have undergone while imprisoned by the Israelis.

According to the Palestinian Prisoners Society, between 48,000 and 53,000 Palestinians out of a combined Gaza and West Bank population of four million –including women and children – have been imprisoned since the outbreak of the second Intifadah.

Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem says 85 percent of those arrested have been tortured.

According to the Women's Centre for Legal Advice and Counselling (WCLAC) in Ramallah, 48 Palestinian women and girls were killed between 2004 and 2006. The youngest victim was 12 and the oldest 85. Mashoor Basisy, director general of planning at the Palestinian Authority (PA) women's affairs ministry, says many more women have been seriously injured and hospitalised.

Compounding the situation is the lack of legal avenues open to Palestinian women wishing to press charges. Jordanian penal law, which applies to the West Bank, allows male relatives to escape prosecution, or only receive light sentences, for killing or attacking female relatives if the attacks fall under the 'honour killing' category.

If a woman has been beaten, and wishes to press assault charges, she has to be hospitalised for at least 10 days, and provide two witnesses who are not related, as domestic violence is not recognised within the law. Furthermore, neither the Egyptian penal law, which applies in Gaza, nor the West Bank's Jordanian law recognises rape within marriage.

As a result only 1.2 percent of women who experienced domestic violence filed a formal complaint with the police, and less than 1 percent sought counselling and protection at the police station, says the PBS survey.

But through the combined efforts of the PA ministries of social affairs and for women's affairs, in conjunction with women's rights organisations, three shelters for battered women have been established in the West Bank where 50 women can be accommodated.

Basisy says it has been hard to establish a shelter in Gaza due to its conservative culture and pressing political problems, but a proposal for one was under consideration.

And while there are no shelters, Diab says the GCHP at least offers battered women counselling, support, psychotherapy and courses aimed at self-empowerment and boosting self-esteem.

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