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

MIDEAST: Occupation and Siege Sideline Rampant Domestic Violence

Mel Frykberg

RAMALLAH, Apr 8 2009 (IPS) - A Palestinian woman fleeing her abusive husband in Gaza several weeks ago was stabbed to death by her enraged husband as the terrified woman sought shelter in her parents home.

Dima Nashashibi: "There is a lot of shame but very little societal support." Credit:  Mel Frykberg/IPS

Dima Nashashibi: "There is a lot of shame but very little societal support." Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

The unidentified victim was one of the rare statistics which made the headlines and where the police got involved.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg. Most of the cases don’t go reported for a number of reasons," Mashoor Basissy, the director of The Palestinian Authority (PA) Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MOWA) in the central West Bank city of Ramallah, told IPS.

Dima Nashashibi, the deputy-director of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling (WCLAC) in Ramallah which helps domestic violence victims added, "The subject of domestic violence in Palestinian society is largely repressed and not openly discussed."

"Furthermore, there is a lack of accountability partly because of the legal system here which is primed against the women from the start," Nashashibi told IPS.

There are no laws against domestic violence, but only general assault laws. Rape within marriage is not considered a crime and so-called honour killings carry the maximum sentence of six months in the very few cases where perpetrators are apprehended and brought to justice.

"Not only is there a lot of shame involved but there is basically very little societal support for these women should they try to take the matter further," Nashashibi told IPS.

The situation is particularly dire in the Gaza Strip where there are no shelters for battered women. Furthermore, according to a recent report by the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in Gaza, various NGOs and experts in the field, domestic violence perpetrated against Palestinian women has risen rapidly this year.

Manal Awad, director of the women's empowerment project at the Gaza Community Health Programme (GCHP) stated that reports of domestic violence had spiked since the Israeli military assault earlier this year.

"The occupation and the siege are major factors," Awad told IPS. "Men in our patriarchal society are regarded as the heads of the household.

"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."

The true figures of domestic violence are hard to ascertain as the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics (PBS) has not been able to carry out a comprehensive follow-up survey since its last survey figures were released in early 2007 before Hamas took control of Gaza by force.

The Islamic resistance organisation Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, while the more secular and western-backed PA, affiliated with the Fatah movement, controls the West Bank.

According to PBS figures 24 percent of women in the West Bank had experienced physical abuse while 12 percent were subjected to sexual abuse. For the Gaza Strip the figures were 23 percent and 10 percent respectively

According to WCLAC, 48 Palestinian women and girls fell victim to honour killings between 2004 and 2006. The youngest victim was 12 and the oldest 85. Basissy said many more women have been seriously injured and hospitalised.

WCLAC was established in 1991 in Jerusalem. "We started off by providing women with counselling and legal advice only… It was apparent to us that change needed to be effected at the legal and political levels to make a real difference. We began by making amendments to the gender-based discriminatory laws which were put into a draft and presented to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC)," Nashashibi told IPS.

"Due to the political upheaval here the PLC has ceased operations until the situation becomes more stable. In the interim we are focusing our efforts on lobbying and advocacy," said Nashashibi.

WCLAC wants a number of laws changed. Honour killings should be regarded as murder, abortions should be legal or at the very least be available in cases of rape and incest. Improved protection laws and apprehended violence orders are also imperative, added Nashashibi.

Documenting violence against women from social and political perspectives is also part of WCLAC’s agenda. A sub-category of this includes harassment of Palestinian women by Israeli soldiers.

"We are currently undertaking several surveys of women in both Gaza and the West Bank in relation to the Israeli invasion and the occupation and how they think this has effected them," explained Nashashibi.

After the surveys are completed WCLAC plans to hand them over to various NGOs and UN committees dealing with violence against women as a basis for implementing further changes which empower women.

Apart from running an emergency shelter for battered women, WCLAC also holds courses regularly for the Palestinian police making them more sensitive to domestic violence issues. The police are also provided with procedure and policy guide lines.

"Their response has been overwhelmingly positive… Now many understand that violence against women is unacceptable. They also understand why some women kill their abusers. In fact they are now turning to us for advice on dealing with other female prisoners too," Nashashibi said.

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