UN World Food Programme

Domestic Violence Amidst Palestine’s Poverty

Their men are ashamed at not being able to provide for their families. The women are fearful of what their husbands will do in their frustration. Kirstie Campbell looks at the fate of women in the poverty-stricken occupied Palestinian territories.

Their men are ashamed at not being able to provide for their families. The women are fearful of what their husbands will do in their frustration. Kirstie Campbell looks at the fate of women in the poverty-stricken occupied Palestinian territories.

We are in Southern Gaza – the poorest area in the Palestinian territory where 8 out of 10 people exist on less than US$2 per day.

This area bordering neighbouring Egypt, has also experienced some of the most extreme violence and hardship in the past years and has a reputation for being one of the most dangerous places on the planet.

Several months ago my son asked me why I had brought him into this world if I couldn’t feed him

We are visiting a group of impoverished rural women who are attending training sessions provided by WFP through a local organisation.

WFP supports over 4,000 women through such programmes, which provide a monthly food parcel in return for 20 hours of training a month.

The training topics help them to produce their own food, earn money and sensitise them to a range of issues including nutrition, hygiene and their legal rights.

Silent tears

Today’s gathering of 12 women is a lively good humoured group but the laughter is frequently broken by silent tears of deep torment.

The women are married to labourers and farmers who used to be middle-income earners and ample providers and now face life at home or scouring the streets for temporary work.

Security restrictions around the Gaza Strip and political instability within have helped create this dismal reality.

Violence - a hidden wound

The women tell me how the most basic elements of their lives have been disrupted by the economic situation; with very few ingredients to work with, even meals are not the same.

Many families eat the same simple food for days in a row and children worry where their next meal will come from.

Copyright: 2007 WFP/Kirstie Campbell

“Some days we don’t even have one shekel to buy food. I don’t know how we manage. When I ask my husband for wheat flour you cannot imagine his reaction," said one woman, who preferred not to give her name.

This leads us to a hidden wound in Gaza society. It seems that violence has spread from the streets into many homes.

Ashamed

Many men, dissatisfied and ashamed by their situation, are taking out their frustrations on their families in the form of violence.

Violence was not the norm in the Palestinian home but rising poverty has brought in its wake anger that is eating at the Palestinian social fabric.

Some women are able to talk about the violence they experience in the home with female family members; however, they often face an unsympathetic response based on the widespread expectation that women must accept "their role and fate in life" – for better and for worse.

Bottled-up pain

Other women keep their secrets deep inside. One woman told me how she bottles up the pain and misery and never shares her burden with anyone, "because a woman must accept her fate".

She adds that she is frequently sick as a result of her heavy burden. One of the major difficulties in Gaza is that few women know their legal rights.

To complicate matters further, existing laws must compete against traditional family customs.

Positive trends

Amidst this complicated cultural environment, there are some positive trends taking place. The economic noose which so binds the men is providing a de facto liberation for women as the need for survival is superseding tradition.

Men who always believed that a woman’s place should be "at home" are now being forced to let women work outside the home in order to contribute to household expenses.

"Before my life consisted of eating, sleeping and cooking. I didn’t know my neighbours and had the sense I was living in a prison. My husband only allowed me to attend the training because of the food ration I received through it. Now I have learned new skills which I can use to earn and save money and he is really encouraging me to come to every session," said one woman.

Valuable release mechanism

It seems that the training makes them feel happier and more relaxed, which creates a better situation at home.

They are able to express themselves through the practical sessions, and this is a valuable release mechanism.

Furthermore, they save money they would have otherwise spent on purchasing food.

Good relationship

They also meet their neighbours and clearly have built a very good relationship during the six months they have studied together.

Their personal satisfaction from involvement in the project and the mere social interaction makes them better equipped to deal with their husbands and children.

Cycle of violence

But with economic stagnation and violence persisting, peace at home is also fragile and the future gloomy.

"All I can hope for is a better situation for my children," said one of the women interviewed.

"Several months ago my son asked me why I had brought him into this world if I couldn’t feed him. He is always angry and aggressive. I am really afraid that our children will carry the cycle of violence through to the next generation," she said.