I’ve now been to Gaza four times, three times this year alone. But no matter how often I’m there, nothing quite prepares me for the experience.
I get up early as the sun is rising, turn on lights which always work when I want them to, take a shower with plentiful hot clean water, make myself a strong coffee, and drive down the coast along the smoothly paved motorways of Israel to the Erez border crossing.
Permit papers in hand, we navigate Israeli passport control and walk the fifteen minutes through no-man’s land to the Palestinian Authority entrance. There our passports and PA permissions are checked and our driver from the Near East Council of Churches meets us, taking us a couple hundred metres to the Hamas passport control. Again our passports and papers are recorded, and we make our way along the wide pot-holed road to Gaza City, passing carts filled with produce and goods, drawn by horses and donkeys. For the next 48 hours or so, I sit in meetings where lights flicker on and off as electricity fails and generators kick in, drink only bottled water (using it also to brush my teeth), and use hand-sanitiser even after washing my hands.
Such a short distance, yet I always feel as though I’ve entered another world.
This time there were just four of us from the Church of Scotland and Methodist Church (UK), which meant that our schedule felt more spacious, and we were able to ask more questions and gather more information from our partner organisations. It’s too much to try to include all we saw and learned and experienced in just one post, so over the next few days, I hope to write about different aspects of our visits.
One project we visited was the Women’s Programme Centre in the Nuseirat Refugee Camp, one of UNRWA’s gender initiative programmes. It provides vocational training to women, including sewing, embroidery and hairdressing. On site is a nursery for the children of the women who work there, and a kindergarten for the community. Though the centre aims to be self-sufficient in its funding, it still relies heavily on outside support, and recent UNRWA cuts have meant that eight people no longer receive a salary ($400/month). Because unemployment in Gaza is so high (around 60-65% for young people and women) and job opportunities so rare, they have chosen to continue working for the centre on a voluntary basis. ‘What else would they do,’ Samah, the Programme Coordinator, asked. ‘Sit at home and look at Facebook? They’d rather do something good for the community.’
Many of the women’s husbands are also unemployed, and in a conservative Muslim society, it’s not uncommon to have five, six or seven children. 80% of families rely on food aid.
Some of the women in the sewing department showed us how they recycled textiles, cutting out beautifully embroidered dresses and repurposing them as detailed collars and sleeves for new abayas. The kindergarten was colourfully decorated, and fabric learning tools lined the walls, upcycled on site from old clothing and linens. The kindergarten used to have 50 students, but now only has 21. Families struggle to pay the fees of 200NIS ($50)/4 months, so the centre subsidises many of the children who attend.
As we walked around the large building, we saw several closed doors. ‘Those programmes have had to stop because we didn’t have the funding,’ Samah explained.
In 2006 UNRWA established a legal aid clinic at the centre as part of a job creation programme. However, three lawyers there have been working without pay since February because of the funding cuts. They remain committed to the centre and the women they assist, and by continuing their work, they maintain their professional qualifications and links within the legal community.
While we were speaking with them, a young woman with a baby came in seeking legal assistance. Her family is based in the West Bank, and following trouble with her husband and his family, she is now living with her uncle. Her husband is not paying maintenance for the child, and the centre is trying to solve the problem by mediation rather than taking him to court, partly because court fees of 50NIS ($15) are prohibitive for both the centre and the young woman. Her’s is sadly not an isolated case.
Gender based violence and domestic abuse are prevalent throughout Gaza (as can be seen in the shocking infographic above from the UN Population Fund), and each centre we visited — from family health centres, psychosocial programmes, vocational training centres, and hospitals — is trying to raise awareness and address both the violence itself and the underlying issues of unemployment and poverty which often lead to an increase in abuse. (For example, in the waiting room of one of the Near East Council of Churches’ family health clinics, a woman was giving a lecture about GBV to the mothers who had brought their children for medical assessments. NECC’s vocational training centres also work with the young men to reduce instances of violence within the home, and posters about domestic violence hang in each of its centres.)
Each time we go to Gaza, I wonder how things will ever improve. The Strip is controlled by three authorities: Israel controls the borders and restricts freedom of movement of both people and trade; the Palestinian Authority is responsible for many of the governmental bodies; and finally, Hamas controls security and ‘manages’ the Gazan strip. The result is that the people of Gaza are trapped in the middle of the political power plays and fighting between each of these. On this visit, we also saw firsthand the impact the withdrawal of US funding from UNRWA and USAid in Gaza is having on the work of our friends and partners.
When we told Samah and the other women at Nuseirat Women’s Programme Centre how much admiration we had for them and their work in such difficult circumstances, she simply replied, ‘We have no choice. We try to stay. This is how things are. We try to stay.’
As we said our goodbyes, we assured them of our love, our prayers, our solidarity. We promised to share about the remarkable work they do, to tell of their determination and compassion, and to do everything we can to help them as they try to stay.
For more information on gender based violence and the effects of poverty on domestic abuse in Gaza, UN OCHA and UNFPA has produced some excellent reports: