The Wefaq Society for Women and Child Care founded in 2010, seeks to achieve gender equality and improvement for vulnerable children through economic empowerment and psychosocial support in one of the most challenged areas of the Gaza Strip. We meet with the leadership and women involved with the organization over coffee as the electricity flickers off (there is no fuel for a generator) and the stories emerge in a warm, open, sisterly environment. (Consider that it is extremely hard for the staff to work when there are no functioning computers let alone functioning civil government.) The situation in the southern Gaza Strip is more difficult and more miserable than many areas, but largely ignored by the media, far from Gaza City. The society has its roots in the Gaza Community Mental Health Program but we are told that Dr. Eyad el Saraj, (founder of GCMHP and for years the only psychiatrist in the Strip), urged them to be independent; they now have a department for women, children, building capacity, and media. Another branch in the al-Shoka area, the most marginalized part of Rafah, offers psychosocial support in partnership with ActionAid Palestine, funded by Disaster Emergency Committee-DEC.
“We are here also implementing our project which is psychosocial empowerment, improvement for women and livelihood, a fund for small projects for women who have been bombed and domestic violence, and widows, divorced, and abandoned. Some of the women lost their livelihood during the war, left their sheep and goats and escaped to the center of Rafah during the war. Black Week started on Friday; they [Israeli forces] were trying to occupy the east area [of the Gaza Strip], they destroyed everything, animals, trees and more but the media doesn’t reflect the picture. Bombing and destruction followed us to the sea shore by F16s. After [the people] leave the area they try to come back during a cease fire, but they were bombed during the cease fire, intentionally. Many died, injured, houses destroyed, they went to UNRWA shelters or to relatives. They found after the cease fire, their sheeps and goats were dead, the only hospital in Rafah, Abu Youssef al-Najjar Hospital was bombed, (see:https://www.maannews.com/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?id=717391), the injured couldn’t reach, it was the center of occupation. The hospital was bombed, so they died, so more casualties. This aggression to the hospital made big problem, bodies in the field, in the street. To treat the injuries, they moved the injured to a private Kuwaiti Hospital, very small and very limited, no equipments. The main hospital was closed, surrounded by soldiers.”
“The center has an emergency response plan, so once the war ended, Wefaq quickly responded in shelters, psychosocial program, intervention with people. The staff went to the shelters, bring donors clothes, food, distribute them. We are one of the members of the DEC emergency committee in community based organizations, (CBO) with UNRWA. They formulated an emergency committee and started to respond, especially in the shelters and relatives’ houses.”
“People who are forced to leave especially in the eastern area were without anything, clothes, food, money, nothing; they escaped with nothing. Then it happened during the cease fire! [Israelis] attacked, there is no safe place in Rafah at that moment. I was at home waiting for bombs. I live next to al-Shoka, my neighbor’s house was hit with a very big rocket; didn’t explode. The civil defense removed the rocket, many cases like this.” The women are laughing, gallows humor. “All Gaza like this.”
Another woman explains, “I was leaving my children home in Khan Yunis to bring help and needs for people in shelters. My children say to me, ‘Mom we are afraid, why should you leave us?’ I say, ‘Here death, there death, but let me do something useful for people.’ I was crossing Al Nasser Street while bombing happened ten meters away, another time in Khan Yunis, less than ten meters and the house, they bombed.” I ask, what about fear? “We are used to it, also it was Ramadan. I have three kids, two in university, one in school. We are as adults, we are fearful, a frightening experience.” So Gazans are experiencing a terrifying unpredictable bombardment and they are fasting for Ramadan.
Another woman adds, “I was waiting for morning to begin. At night you don’t know when the bombing will begin. Because of the psychosocial pressure, all categories [of people are] nervous. So violence start to be in every category, not just against female, many incidents in shelters because of the distress of the people.” (Think New Orleans, Katrina) “Immoral males make it for them, the same for war or not with war, in harassment, sexual threats. The shelter has two to three WCs, how the female teenager can go to the WC? They didn’t have water to wash, they tried to get to relatives’ houses to shower. Women delivered in the shelters, no medical care, there is no nurses or doctors. There is no professional equipment. Female doctors were refusing to come to the shelters because they were saying, ‘My children, how could I leave my children?’”
“A mother delivered [in the shelter] but she hadn’t any clothes for baby or for her, so they hired for her the near houses to get some clothes, hygiene was very miserable, UNRWA services were not as proper as they should be. Three days in Ramadan, UNRWA had no food in shelters, director of UNRWA said he has nothing in Rafah, and probably beyond. The emergency response of them was to go to restaurants to get food for people. They (the volunteers and NGOs) opened the restaurants even in Ramadan to cook the food. We are trying to get better the situation. We don’t like to talk about war, opens too many wounds, everyone is hurt. Whatever you saw on TV it is an instant, not as much as actual situation. The Syam family, they bombed their house. They escaped to the street but there is no place secure, thirteen killed in the street by bomb, plus injured; random killing of entire family, kids babies, many innocent families.”
At this point, the women are crying, the women in charge and the women being served share the same experiences, the same pain, the same tears.
Everyone reconstitutes their fragile psyches and the interview continues. “Projects here in our branch: we are implementing in cooperation with UNDP, the legal protection for victims of war after the aggression on Gaza for female victims. We didn’t talk about the other section of the project in al-Shoka, we are implementing psychosocial improvement and livelihood training. [We focus on areas like] gender based violence, IT, young women leadership program for university graduates to prepare them for job opportunities, CBOs, (community based organizations), private sectors. We also had already finished two months ago a working placement for 200 girls, they got jobs like secretaries, all kinds of jobs, income for their families and this empowers them. NGOs and us try to change the idea and traditions of people by awareness regarding women’s roles, there is acceptance that the female get out and work, life is very difficult so women will continue working after marriage.”
“We teach life skills, English, sewing, embroidery, but some projects closed, handicrafts and sewing for two years closed, no funds. “Now we are going to make a partnership with Actionaid, new project of psychosocial support and vocational training and small projects. With children six to twele, at al-Shoka, we do drawing, play psychodrama, individual counseling, group counseling, home and school visits, family interventions to fix the relationship between the mother and children. For low achieving children, there are many success stories in al-Shoka area.”
“Domestic violence, it is a huge problem. Wefaq works on this, in alliance, for combat violence against women. The procedures we follow, first awareness for the woman about her rights, about gender, the violence and types of violence. We consider this as part of protection for women. Then home visits for intervention, talks to men, awareness, the same awareness to the men. We do community mediation, separate from the mosque, with mukhtars, leaders, university teachers, social workers, political activists. It is part of changing the tradition of the society towards women’s issues; we encourage women to get independent economically (sewing and handicrafts) especially those who are exposed to violence. Who has the income has the [power of] decision, this is a very effective intervention.”
“We still have problem of early marriage, 13 and up, especially in a bad economy. Previously we start to modify their attitude, but now tradition to make the girl get married early because of economic bad situation. They returned to the idea to get rid of her, the older man has multiple wives.” There have also been issues of brothers-in-law killing their dead brother’s wives because of money, because of inheritance. “We are implementing legal protection, victims of legal violence, about inheritance, alimony, in divorce. It is a tyrant’s law. I have three children, divorced, have not seen them for two days, [tears again]. One-and-a-half years ago they were taken by force, I raised them for ten years, I still have my daughter, but they may take her in a few months.” More tears. So this is woman who is very aware of her rights and her children’s legal rights, she has the support of Wefaz, she has a lawyer, and still her husband has married another woman and has custody of two of their three children. “We are struggling for these rights. All of us are victims, suffering from one aspect or another, all women in Gaza.”
Another woman is tapping her fingers on the desk. “We should lead the victim’s movements to help ourselves and to help others.” I ask if there are safe houses for women and learn that an attempt was made, but the government refused. “The Hamas government, of course they took my children.” We learn that in the past, on occasion, “we refer to Arabs’ safe home in Arab homes in ’48 Israel, to get safe. Now this cannot happen, the border is closed. Hamas and Israel occupation are here and there.”
The center teaches health workshops, “we have health workshop weekly, about burns, about hygiene, but we need a whole program about women’s health.” I give them an Arabic version of Our Bodies Ourselves, sharing my world with theirs. “Why shouldn’t we as females make a committee for worldwide peace? We will make a strategic plan to stop war. Arab women should work on this idea; the biggest loser is the females.”
The electricity is still off and I discover that some of the more religious women fast on Mondays and Thursdays. “We get up to wash or iron at 5 am if there is electricity, maybe 12 hours per day, on and off. Once I come to work, electricity in my house is on, when I back to home, no electricity. We don’t feel we are alive. We have tyrant husbands, they do not cook, wash clothes; they are not ready to help. How will that change here, how to change the culture and attitude? But it is very difficult, women’s work is first step. Of course, the main aim of ours is work. We work hard on gender issue to change the ideas of people and attitude, men a little change, but they are moody in this aspect, not convinced.” I joke that I have heard that men always have PMS and one woman responds, “PMS on a 40 year cycle! May Allah take all men!” The laughter is slightly relief, slightly conspiratorial, slightly guilty.
One woman explains, “I have a terrible story. About twelve years ago I separated from my husband but we stay in the same house, [different bedrooms] just to make a name that I have a husband. In our society, he has no responsibility towards his kids, his house, about money, nothing.”
I ask, how do you help your sons to be different from their fathers? “We are strong women. I suffered with my older son, but he start to be older and wiser and he at university. His father’s behavior made a weakness in his personality, but I intervened, I support him to get stronger and more responsible. Now he is a responsible person. We established this organization for ourselves and our daughters…. and our sons.”
“Daily we meet with about 10 to 12 cases of women victims and provide them with help.” One of the staff is a psychologist and she feels her problems are small compared to others. “Occupation circumstances make us stronger, still hard. But I have had enough of getting stronger! I am satisfied, fed up. We wish you stand by us, this session is good even if it opened wounds; this society helps vulnerable women.”
I ask if guns are prevalent in domestic violence cases? “No guns, but other material for killing, honor killing, related to virginity, are poisoned or with a knife. These are rare cases, men do get punished if government knows. But Hamas, don’t punish properly, may put him in jail, but are not changing attitudes.” Two younger men come in, they are the accountants and their relationship with the women is friendly, joking around. These women clearly enjoy the company of these men, but find the oppressive men in their lives unacceptable.
I turn to the woman who is worried she will lose her daughter post-divorce. She says she has “a fun life with my daughter, take her to playground, to restaurants, massage. My daughter misses her brothers, she is confused; what can I do? Try to make her not to think about the explosion in the future if she goes to him [the ex-husband]. He has another tyrant wife.”
“University trained women are desirable because they can contribute to economy in the marriage. Women are used for their money, we are cheating ourselves to say okay [with this]. We are sometimes part of the problem; domestic awareness is a complicated matter. Mostly, when a woman marries, goes to husband’s family. Independent ones have apartment, no cultural problem with this. But economic circumstances prevent this. The mother-in-law is practicing violence against who, women practice violence against women. It is about emotions, feelings of the mother that this new woman took her son, a kind of reflection of her inside emotions that this female came and took the son. The young wife is in competition if her emotions get extremely jealous, this is another issue. Once it is normal for a mother to be jealous of the new bride, sometimes the new wife of the son herself practice violence against the mother-in-law. This is all related to awareness and balance, raising the awareness about domestic violence, gender awareness, how to develop attitudes towards gender and campaigns and community mediation. None of this is taught in schools, I want to do this, amongst teachers and families, secondary schools, girls and boys, there are a lot of ideas for services, but no funds. We don’t even have electricity. I am very tired, I have many ideas to develop the community but no funds.”
Talk turns to politics. “America is the father or mother of Israel but we do not talk about people, we share you in your agonies, it is all about the government.” Then I was asked a most amazing but understandable question: “Is Congress all Jewish?” I launch into a description of the Israel Lobby, AIPAC, Christian Zionists and a quick rundown on how the US system works. I am amazed to discover that the women have heard about Jewish Voice for Peace but they are unaware of the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanction of Israel.