Question of Palestine home
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)
20 October 2010
About this report
Ten years ago, on 31 October 2000, the United Nations Security Council took an important and unprecedented step into new territory. Recognizing the vulnerability of women and girls to violence during and after armed conflict, and the absence or low level of women’s representation in efforts to prevent war, build peace and restore devastated societies, the Council passed resolution 1325. The resolution sought formally for the first time in the Security Council to end this neglect and actively to promote and draw on the untapped potential of women everywhere on issues of peace and security.
The release of the 2010 edition of The State of World Population report coincides with the 10th anniversary of that historic resolution. The report highlights how women in conflict and post-conflict situations—as well as in emergencies or protracted crises— are faring a decade later.
The 2010 report is different from previous editions, which took an academic approach to topics related to the mandate and work of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. The current report takes a more journalistic approach, drawing on the experiences of women and girls, men and boys, living in the wake of conflict and other catastrophic disruptions. They speak for themselves about the challenges they face, the ways their communities are coping and becoming more resilient and about how many of them have become involved in reconstruction and renewal. The individuals featured in the report are neither statisticians nor demographers. They are rural people living off the land and urbanites trying to survive in broken cities. Many survivors of conflict and natural disasters are now working in their communities to help fellow citizens recover and readjust.
Globally, there is a growing roster of non-governmental organizations and community activists working in partnership with governments, United Nations agencies, donor countries and foundations. In the mix are also traditional elders and religious leaders who strive to comfort the suffering and bring decimated societies back to their cultural roots and principles, so often warped by war, refugee flight, occupation and natural disasters. Local initiatives are healing wounds while rethinking old habits and rules of behaviour for a new age.
While the Security Council was passing resolution 1325 in 2000 and several others on the protection of women in the years that followed, activities were already taking place on the ground in countries where victims of conflict and disaster were frequently not even aware they had moved into the Security
Council’s spotlight. They just knew from experience that there was a lot of rebuilding to be done, and they started undertaking it, head on, often with help from United Nations agencies, funds and programmes and humanitarian organizations.
This report is constructed around interviews and reporting in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Haiti, Jordan, Liberia, the Occupied Palestinian Territory (West Bank), Timor-Leste and Uganda. The diverse nations were chosen for various reasons. Some have recently emerged from conflict and are rebuilding with limited resources. Some have experienced profound social changes as a result of war and displacement. All have a United Nations presence, in some cases an integrated peacekeeping mission, but everywhere an active group of United Nations agencies supporting both governmental and non-governmental efforts. Liberia and Uganda are living in the aftermath of recent conflicts.
Stories from the West Bank illustrate the particular issues created by occupation. In Jordan, Iraqi refugees talk about their uprooted lives. Bosnia and Herzegovina demonstrates how long it can take to heal the victims of war, and how communities can help or hinder the process. In Haiti an impoverished population already worn down by decades of unrest now has to rebuild a nation after a cataclysmic earthquake, which came on the heels of two devastating hurricanes.
Working at the grassroots level, community organizations—some barely a few persons strong—and larger non-governmental organizations have already broadened the meaning of Security Council resolutions and United Nations declarations. What began as a call on governments a decade ago to deal with abuses or neglect of women and girls has steadily grown into a broader movement that encompasses all members of society. Today, for example, more attention is being paid to the psychological and physical wounds of men and boys, who, people in very different countries now agree, must be part of rebuilding societies and lives and creating space for fostering peace.
Psychosocial counselling for victims of trauma is expanding exponentially and becoming more professional in many places. The needs of wounded communities are defined not only in terms of peace agreements and the cessation of violence after conflict but also in informal and formal programmes that dig deep into history, politics, economics and culture to try to explain why violence happened—or continues after conflicts end—and what to do to root out the causes. The importance of bringing young people into these discussions is widely accepted and many novel programmes have begun in recent years. Artists of all kinds and of all ages are eager to join in the discussion through their work, as are sports personalities who volunteer to work with youth.
Echoing the spirit of the 2005 United Nations General Assembly’s World Summit, even if unintentionally, many citizens are taking heed of governments’ “responsibility to protect” their people. Nations of the world agreed in 2005 to assign to governments first and foremost the burden of shielding their citizens from harm on a mass scale, with the international community standing by to help or take action to stop abuse if all else fails. The responsibility to protect has been interpreted widely. Apart from ensuring against physical harm, in some places it is seen as covering, at least in spirit, such steps as creating or strengthening legal and judicial institutions necessary in post-conflict areas, where property rights are frequently in dispute or there is unsettling violence in homes or crime in the streets. Functioning institutions of all kinds, including health and educational services, hasten a return to normality and can help
prevent future conflict.
Gender-based violence and abuse continues in many forms, often exacerbated by armed conflict or the destabilization of family life in camps for the displaced or for those who have lost their homes as a result of natural disaster. It is now recognized that gender roles can be upset and transformed by war, military occupation and refugee life, all of which can lead to changed economic relationships within households. Such changes can have profound social effects, and the opportunity to fathom them and put the knowledge to constructive use is a bellwether of the post-conflict world. In countless small and large ways, in many countries where life has been disrupted, people, often with support from humanitarian and development organizations, are working in many ways to make the future better.
In times of crisis,
Among Palestinians in lands occupied by Israel, old views of gender roles are similarly challenged, if in different ways and for different reasons, according to Ziad Yaish, Assistant Representative for UNFPA’s programme in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Yaish has written a master’s thesis on the subject for Birzeit University in which he focused his research on the Palestinian city of Nablus, where families have endured decades of occupation and sporadic military attacks. Israeli settlements are expanding in the Nablus area, connected by roads Palestinians are not permitted to use.
Nablus, an ancient city with a long history of resistance, has been battered by Israeli assaults and intrusive search operations. The city is more or less circumscribed by Israeli barricades that limit access, as road blocks are sometimes rearranged without warning, causing residents lost time as they look for open routes. The local economy is in bad shape, jobs are scarce and unemployment high. Yaish was interested, he said in an interview, to learn how households negotiated authority in this crisis situation.
“I wanted to know how men feel about the whole situation, and the effect of the occupation on gender roles in the family,” he said. “I wanted to study men, and husbands in particular, and also their relations with their wives and their children. The whole idea started when I saw men at Israeli checkpoints getting humiliated—sometimes strip-searched, interrogated in front of their families. My thoughts were about how those men react when they go back to their households.”
“Studies on the effect of war and armed conflict on masculinity in the Arab World are limited,” Yaish wrote in his thesis. “The whole concept of masculinity is new in the Arab World.” He said that searches through bookstores and libraries in Cairo, Amman, Damascus and Jerusalem produced few relevant books or articles.
In the Nablus area, Yaish divided his subjects into men under 40 years old and over 40, to see if generational differences arose. He also talked with women married to unemployed men. “Men are supposed to be the providers and the protectors. But here when they lose their jobs it seems that women take over in terms of trying to provide for the family. Women try to do some income-generating projects [or] get jobs to get an income.” Older men, he found, tend to disengage from the family if they feel marginalized by women, many of whom try to give them psychological support in the hope that one day roles will revert to “normal.”
In Gaza, where life is even more circumscribed for Palestinians than in the West Bank, a group of women speaking by video link to the UNFPA office in Jerusalem, said that they have seen changes in men’s and women’s roles and attitudes in recent years as the territory became more and more isolated. Sabha Sarhan, who since 2003 has organized rural women into self-help clubs that teach, among other things, food production and preservation as income-earners, said that women recognized that life has been bad for the minds of men, and they found ways to try to keep peace in their homes. “Men get frustrated over small things,” she said, “like not being able to buy cigarettes. But women are smart. They can earn money to support men and avoid violence.” Sarhan said she was committed from the start of her rural projects to breaking the custom of confining women to their homes, and she thinks that the Palestinian women of Gaza are stronger now, in part because of what they have endured and had to work through to keep themselves and their families alive.
Maryam Zaqoot, a human rights activist and Director of the Culture and Free Thought Association in Gaza, added that her organization and others recognized that conflict with Israel affected men more than women in many ways and, on the positive side, has contributed to more shared efforts to alleviate hardship. “Men are becoming more aware of women,” she said. She was echoed by Fiza Shraim, a Palestinian pioneer in improving midwifery and maternal health care under extremely difficult situations, who said that she had observed that fewer young men seem to look for docile, uneducated wives who will stay at home, but are seeking women with skills who can work and help sustain families. She also said that she sees more men helping around the house, a concurrent development and sign of changing attitudes.
In the West Bank, Yaish found that women often excuse abusive behaviour because they believe that men without jobs need their help and support. Younger unemployed Palestinian men do not disengage or withdraw from family life, as many older men do, but are restless and actively continue to look for jobs. To pass the time, they meet with friends, talking in coffee shops, if they can afford that, or just collecting out on the streets. “They are very angry, they are frustrated,” Yaish said. “Younger men resort more to violence to assert their masculinity in the household.” Palestinian men do not usually seek or accept psychosocial counselling, which is offered by numerous organizations. But both men and women, in Yaish’s findings, spoke of becoming more religious in a search for inner peace and the ability to cope with a hard life. “You always look at masculinity in relation to femininity—you have to look at them together, Yaish said. “Here…I notice a lot of programmes that talk about genderbased violence but always…about women. It becomes a women’s issue. But I think it is not. It is a women’s
men’s issue at the end of the day.”
Imprisoned at home:
life under occupation
In Gaza several years ago, when women in the town of Beit Hanoon were prevented from getting to hospitals by Israeli incursions and roadblocks, Fiza Shraim decided to create a temporary delivery room in a primary care clinic that women were able to reach. Shraim—a winner of the 2010 Americans for UNFPA Award for the Health and Dignity of Women—had seen a need around her and found a way to meet it. Gaza once had a 99 per cent rate of institutional births—favoured in poor countries where midwives may be in short supply and home births risky. With intermittent attacks, a blockade, and other disruptions, that percentage began to slip, and Shraim’s safe delivery was a welcoming oasis.
Shraim had both a nursing diploma and a university degree, earned while she was raising 13 children. She had also qualified as a registered midwife, and had in an emergency delivered one of her own mother’s children, when she was only 12 years old. In 2008-2009, during the Israeli assault on Gaza, Shraim reopened the Beit Hanoon emergency delivery room she had created several years earlier, and offered both health and psychological services. Fifty-two women delivered babies during the 21-day assault on Gaza, as Shraim worked around the clock. On several nights, she was called to homes where pregnant women were trapped by shelling or lack of transportation, and she went out at great risk to deliver their babies.
“I faced a lot of challenges,” she wrote in an informal account of her life. “My family was big and I was the only supporter.” To ensure a continuing family income while her husband is unemployed, Shraim has a job at Balsam Hospital in Beit Hanoon. But her plan is to find a way to open centres and train midwives in more remote areas of Gaza, to make childbirth easier and safer and reduce the deaths of mothers and babies.
The economic situation Shraim faces at home because her husband cannot find work is pervasive in Gaza. Sabha Sarhan, a founder of income-generation education for women and small-scale community development in Gaza, who joined Shraim in a video teleconference to talk about life in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, said that young men especially suffer from being unemployed. “They go to university and then find no job,” she said. “They feel frustrated. The only work they can get is in the tunnels.” Those are the tunnels for smuggling goods into Gaza from Egypt, an illegal trade that nevertheless helps fill gaps caused by an Israeli blockade that has deprived the Gazans of many basic necessities, in particular material for reconstructing war-damaged buildings.
The boundaries of life never stop closing in on the Palestinians in territories occupied by Israel. In Gaza, they are blockaded to the east by the tightly restricted Israeli border. To the west, they face Israeli control of the Mediterranean seacoast and to the south, Egypt. In the West Bank, there are daily humiliations at checkpoints and the visible threat of Israelis moving in to encircle Palestinian cities with settlements that loom like fortifications on the surrounding hilltops. A gigantic concrete barrier wall to keep Palestinians out of Israel is matched in hostility by roads that local people may not use, connecting Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.
Curfews often made going out at
night effectively impossible, even in
The total population in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, a designation that includes both the West Bank and Gaza, was about 3.94 million in 2009, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, which has been conducting its own censuses since 2007, with support from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, known as UNRWA, and more recently from UNFPA. Of the total, about 2.45 million were in the West Bank and about 1.5 million in Gaza. UNRWA, established in 1949, provides assistance, protection and advocacy for some 4.7 million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria as well as in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Almost completely supported by voluntary contributions, UNRWA offers basic services such as education and health care around the region wherever Palestinian refugees are registered.
In the West Bank and Gaza, two societies that differ in some ways are similarly never completely secure in the environment in which they live, with on-again, off-again conflict always a possibility. Palestinian women living in Israeli-occupied territories, and the men who support them, have been courageous, creative and resourceful in trying to alleviate hardship around them and make life safer for their families. One of the Palestinians’ most difficult challenges has been in providing reproductive health services. In both the West Bank and Gaza, nearly all births once took place in clinics or hospitals, the setting preferred by local reproductive health experts.
In the West Bank, that changed in 2002-2003 when Israel Defense Forces, in response to a series of Palestinian attacks, besieged several West Bank cities, including Ramallah, Jenin and Nablus, leaving many dead and considerable destruction in their wake. In succeeding years, access to medical care became very difficult for Palestinians, and there were many accounts of people in need of doctors or hospital care being held up or turned back at checkpoints. Curfews often made going out at night effectively impossible, even in medical emergencies. When active fighting ended, the obstacles remained in place for years.
The story of Samira, a woman in the village of Azoun Atmeh, near Qalqilia, has become symbolic among the Palestinians. In 2007, when conditions were supposedly getting better, the checkpoint controlling movement out of their village was, nonetheless, closed at night. “At that time, women in labour faced a problem,” said her daughter Hannan, as the women in the family gathered to talk about what happened. “Women had to leave the village several days early and stay with relatives to be near a hospital.” Regular reproductive health care during pregnancy had slipped generally, because women didn’t want to risk the x-ray screening at checkpoints, she added, and after-delivery care was lax. Thinking about these conditions, Hannan decided to study reproductive health and midwifery. It may have saved her mother’s life and that of her baby brother.
Before dawn on the morning when her mother went into labour, Hannan’s father was able to drive only as far as the closest checkpoint, where he was told he could not proceed. He pleaded with the Israeli soldiers to let him pass. They told him if he stepped forward they would kill him, Hannan said. Her mother called out to her husband to back away because he had to think of the nine people he was responsible for in the family, and should not risk his life. By the time her parents returned home, Hannan could see that the baby’s head was already visible. She delivered the baby in the car and then helped her mother into the house, where she found a razor blade and string to cut and tie the umbilical cord. Hannan is now a nurse, and a medical volunteer.
Ali Shaar, a physician who is the National Programme officer for reproductive health at UNFPA’s assistance programme for the Palestinians, said that in 2006, during the worst of the reproductive health crisis, about 1,400 Palestinian births a year were taking place at checkpoints or in cars on the way to the hospital. Even now, antenatal care is not as good as it could be and there are reports of preventable infant deaths. Faced with uncertainty about getting to a hospital, women are opting for more midwife-assisted deliveries or caesarian sections, which have increased to about 26 per cent in isolated areas of the Jordan Valley, Shaar said. “There is ease of movement now,” he said, “but all the checkpoint infrastructure is still there and the relaxation could be reversed in five minutes.”
Numerous self-help projects have sprung up by and for Palestinian women, not only in health but also in economic development. In Jericho, the YWCA offers classes in preparing professional-level food products at home to sell for income and to provide Palestinians alternatives to buying Israeli-produced goods. Palestinian farmers, often under pressure as their land is encroached on by Israeli settlements, produce high-quality dates, oranges, vegetables, honey and goat milk for cheeses. Women can also learn computer use and other skills at the YWCA. With many men out of work, women can put their vocational training to good use. In the city of Nablus, a new women’s centre is teaching the elements of finance and administration.
In Nablus, the movement of people is still restricted by checkpoints and bans on traveling through the closed areas reserved for Israeli settlers. Nablus residents acknowledge that Palestinian militants have operated from here, making the city a target of Israeli attacks. Nablus was badly damaged by Israeli raids in 2002, which largely destroyed its soap-making industry and other economic sectors, leaving the population in a prolonged commercial slump with high unemployment. People who find work outside Nablus, as far away as in Jerusalem, about 60 kilometres to the south, say that it can take hours to travel that distance on roads relatively free of heavy traffic because of unexpected delays at roadblocks. In that setting, rebuilding lives after attacks has been difficult, and physical destruction is still widespread in Nablus, a city that is among the world’s oldest urban centres.
Women in Nablus, working through community initiatives, with support from the city’s municipal government, have in recent years established a network of assistance. Sixty women trained in psychosocial work help traumatized or injured women, guiding them when necessary to professional services offered by relevant municipal government departments. In 2010, the network opened a new headquarters, the Women’s Corner, above a shopping centre in downtown Nablus.
In the Women’s Corner, a cheerful place, women can seek counselling in a programme coordinated by Rafif Mahlas, who directs psychosocial work. There is also training in income-generating activities and a small shop that displays women’s craftwork. The products on display, for which women are paid, include beadwork, embroidery, olive oil soaps and processed foods. The new Women’s Corner programmes in finance and administration are designed to help women move from being merely small-scale producers to becoming entrepreneurs who understand how to market goods and handle money. The Women’s Corner also urges municipal departments and services to mainstream gender and gender budgeting into their work.
Raeda Freitekh, who came to the Women’s Corner to talk about her life as a victim of Israeli attacks and her long years of rehabilitation, has in her own way become a model of determination and persistence for many others in Nablus. In 2002, her home was hit by Israeli bombing. “Two of my aunts were killed,” she said. “I was buried under the rubble for nine hours. After three days, I woke up in the hospital.” Whether from the collapse of her home or the hasty efforts by passers-by to rescue her, she was left completely paralysed; nothing moved, not even her hands. “I can’t remember anything that happened, but what people told me was that somebody walking past heard me under the rubble. Maybe they pulled me out in the wrong way, just because they wanted to save my life and were not thinking of anything else. At that time the situation was very, very bad. Many people were killed and many houses were destroyed, and nobody could understand what was happening. All people were feeling that maybe the city would be completely destroyed over our heads.”
“I did not care what happened to me,” she said. “I was thinking about my family. Where were they? The doctors would tell me nothing. I stayed in the hospital for three months, and then I learned the truth. I would never be able to regain movement My aunts were dead and my house destroyed. I realized that this was the reality now.” Freitekh went through several operations, including one in Jordan. “Three months after coming back, my brother was killed. There was nothing left for me.”
“I was 27, in my first year in university at the time of the bombing,” she said. “Before this happened, I had been married and had a son and a daughter. But I was separated from my husband and had gone back to my family’s house. After this injury, my husband found it very easy to say, ‘You are handicapped, you are not suitable as a wife anymore; you are divorced.’ He found a very easy way to say goodbye.” A well known Palestinian feminist, Rawda Baseir, who had known one of her aunts and had heard the story of the family’s tragedy, stepped in to save Freitekh from depression and suicidal thoughts. “She told me, ‘It is up to you to choose whether to die here on your bed or to continue your life.’” Baseir had organized a support group for women who lost loved ones in the attacks and urged Freitekh to join. She remembers the first, disastrous meeting: “I attended only one session, but felt inside that I wasn’t ready to listen or participate. All I did was cry. I was ashamed of being in a wheelchair. Only a few months ago, I was walking and strong. And now I was not moving anymore.”
Under Baseir’s consistent prodding and with her financial support, Freitekh returned to An-Najah National University in Nablus to study psychology, hoping to use the knowledge to help others. By then, physical therapy had helped her regain movement in her upper body, but her legs did not respond. “Studying at the university was very difficult for me using a wheelchair. Getting to classes was horrible. Because it was an old university, there was no handicap access. My friends in the university helped me a lot by carrying me up stairs to lecture rooms. Sometimes lecturers switched their rooms to the ground floor just because of me. I was the only person in the university with a wheel chair. Now there are six disabled people studying there, and the university has more access. Thank God my friends and my teachers were very supportive.”
With her degree, Freitekh was able to find part-time work on a psychosocial project for the city government. This year, she moved to her first fulltime job as a psychosocial counselor in the Nablus centre for mental health. She was told that she got the job because she had been through everything—psychosocial and physical—and she knew how to provide support for others. “Within that centre, I feel I exist,” she said. “I have found something I can do.” Her story has inspired her own children—her son is now 17 and her daughter 13—and they visit her frequently. They continue to live with their father, while she lives in a brother’s home adapted for her wheelchair. “Now my kids are very proud of me,” she said. “They see and hear people say that, hey, you have a strong mother.” Yes, she says, but it took a community and the support of strong women to make it all possible.
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