How three Palestinian women are mitigating the pandemic in the West Bank
Reem Abd Ulhamid - Palestine
Born in Damascus, Syria in 1983, Reem Abd Ulhamid is an independent journalist based between France and Palestine. She is invested in writing stories about people combating oppression and injustice. She has a master’s degree in Global Communications from the American University of Paris and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Birzeit University in Palestine.
As of 22nd March 2020, the West Bank of Palestine, including East Jerusalem was under complete lockdown, the Palestinian Authority (PA) declared a state of emergency and proposed an urgent detailed plan to tackle the health crisis. The pandemic exacerbated the pre-existing deteriorating economic, health and political situation in the West Bank, mounting levels of political uncertainty, with continuous human rights violations committed by Israel, such as the annexation of Palestinian lands, the demolition of homes, the arrest of children in addition to ceasing and/ or confiscating medical resources. Economically, the PA asked donors to cover the budget deficit; $1.8 billion to $2.4 billion are needed: without international funding, the PA would not be able to pay operating expenses, government salaries and pensions . For the past year, poverty in the West Bank has doubled from 14 to 30% according to the World Bank, recent aid cuts by the US under Donald Trump’s administration which included funding of humanitarian projects - such as health, education and infrastructure supported by USAID. A recent survey conducted by Arab World for Research & Development (AWRAD), March 2020 states that around 71% of respondents in the West Bank reported that their income has significantly declined since the beginning of Covid-19, especially as Palestinian labour in the Israeli settlements has been suspended. As for health-related resources, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, at the time of writing, there are only 375 adult intensive care unit (ICU) beds (in private and public hospitals) and 295 ventilators in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank as well as East Jerusalem). Moreover, Israel restricts Palestinians from purchasing pharmaceuticals as well as importing medical supplies such as testing kits and personal protection equipment (PPE) .
Methodology This article is based on semi-open interviews conducted with three Palestinian women hired by the municipality council, working in their villages in the West Bank. I intend to highlight their experiences as well as their survival strategies including obstacles related to patriarchal social norms according to their explanations. The interviews were conducted by 'phone during the first stage of the Covid-19 pandemic (23rd July-5th August 2020). All three women earned the entire income of their households, they also were elected or appointed in the recent local elections in the West Bank (2012) where women formed 20% of elected members as well as 20% of members selected via acclamation representing various political parties; the designated percentage was included in the National Development Plan (2014-2016) considered as strengthening women’s participation in local government. These powerful women were first responders to health crises, as they led and contributed to forming emergency committees and played central roles, communicating basic needs of their communities to the government and were involved in the survival and resilience of families telling stories of courage and humanity. Their primary concerns were economic.
Barriers: economic crises and rise of domestic violence Aisha Nemer known as Um Eyad (mother of Eyad), 56 years old, Mayor of Qira, (a small village located in the northeast of Salfit), mother of six boys and one girl was elected by the majority of families in her village. She explains that her electoral success is due to her abilities in solving financial problems, a debt of 40 thousand Shekels (around 10 thousand euros) for electricity bills, as well as resolving major disputes among families in the village were reasons behind her election. Um Eyad expressed her concerns: One of the major issues I am facing is the financial situation, I get alarming calls from families at 6 a.m. worrying about their children’s next meal, I really do not know how we will survive these times. There are numerous Palestinian workers who lost their jobs in Israel; the second issue for me is to enforce confinement, people here are not convinced of its necessity and we had to install makeshift check points to control the streets . As for Rawida, a counselor in Kober aged 52, a mother of three, she was clearly concerned about misinformation as well as the financial situation. She formed an emergency committee consisting of around seven women, who communicate daily to discuss issues regarding complex social situations as well as the lack of information as she describes it. One of the major problems I face is conflicted ideas, some Palestinians think they are immune to the virus and consequently compare it to Israeli occupation, I still hear people say, if Israel couldn’t eradicate us, nothing can, not even Coronavirus. The second problem I face is the increase of domestic violence, you know there are many women, who left their husbands' house because of it. The confinement is stressful, and everyone is at home, the husband, the uncle, the children, they are all bored, and take it out on women .
The rise of domestic violence During the first period of the pandemic, between January and April 2020, several organizations that offer counseling services for victims of domestic violence experienced capacity overload. Furthermore, numerous women’s organizations and journalists documented and consequently condemned the killing of 17 women in the context of “honour” . The Ministry of Social Development reported that 20 cases of attempted suicide due to difficult social and family circumstances, reported last April mid-confinement. The findings of the National Survey on Violence in Palestinian society (2019) recounted that women face different forms of violence sometimes simultaneously: psychological, physical, sexual, social economic and cribber. The pilot study pinpointed that 24% of married women in the West Bank and 38% in the Gaza Strip have experienced violence from their spouse at least once during the last 12 months of the survey period. More specifically, 18% have been exposed to physical violence, 57% to psychological violence, 9% to sexual violence, 41% to economic violence. Ibtisam Sawlha, aged 45, an active council member in Jenin agreed that domestic violence has been on the rise and confinement has made things even worse. She explained: The problem is that there is no proper social structure to help victims of domestic violence: a woman does not easily decide to defend herself as many think once she turns to the police for help she will lose the custody of her children to their father, something that is unimaginable for mothers. We have enormous work to do in Palestine regarding this society and it will take a long time to protect women . The fear of divorce or losing their kids is another barrier according to these three women. The International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) published that 63% of men and 50% of women believe a ‘woman should tolerate violence to keep the family together. Moreover, the Minister of Women’s Affairs, Amal Hamad, emphasized that although the numbers of domestic violence are rising, they could not represent real numbers of women facing domestic violence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Stuck in the Caretaking box The Palestinian public health emergency plan inspired the government to issue different directives related to containing and suppressing the spread of Covid-19 by reinforcing social distancing measures at work and public places. One of the adaptive measures for instance included decreasing the number of workers on site: working mothers both in the private and public sectors were strongly encouraged to stay at home, particularly those with children studying online. Palestinian journalists condemned designated facilities to quarantine potential carriers, especially for those coming from abroad as being inconsiderate to women and girls’ respective needs. In an interview with the Minister of Women’s Affairs, relating to the management of the health crisis, she focused on regular hand-washing and general cleanliness of the household , but the responsibility of family safety was given specifically to mothers. A recent report issued by the UN last April on gendered impacts of the pandemic in Palestine, during the spread of Covid-19, condemned policies adopted by the PA. to reinforce gender stereotypes instilled in society. According to the same report, “the responsibility of maintaining cleanliness of the household is increasing burdens and negatively impacting the psychosocial status of women and girls as primary domestic caregivers.” Infection of household members, especially children, may generally cast negative blame against female caregivers which can result in social abuse . According to The Palestinian Working Woman Society for Development up until the formation of the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW) along with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964, the major focus for Palestinian women’s groups was on health and education services . The feminist movement focused on its humanitarian struggle by providing services to Palestinian families in refugee camps in Palestine and abroad. Currently, women represent nearly 60 percent of workers in the care sector in Palestine and 70 percent of front-line health workers. The closure of schools, the responsibility of family safety have all increased burdens and psychological stress on women and mothers, who are expected to perform multiple and unpaid roles including household chores, home schooling, child recreation in addition to health care for the elderly, requiring them to provide extreme domestic efforts and consequently reinforcing domestic roles for women in society.
Taking women seriously Um Eyad explained that Palestinian society, particularly in villages, perceives women as weak, and she added: I have a personal conviction, if a woman is able to successfully lead her family, then she can lead a society, the most important thing is her self-confidence, the second is to include other people’s opinions . As for Ibtisam Sawlha, Palestinian women are stuck in a caretaking box; when asked to explain she added: Even if a woman gets to a high position, people don’t take her seriously, I had to work very hard to show both men and women that I am capable of carrying out what men do and perform even better…. I always wanted to be in charge. It started out when my husband died, I was 24 years old with two children. When my husband died his family locked me up in the house for at least a year, then I had to convince them that I could work but the only option was daycare jobs looking after children, from there I got to know more people and started to convince them to give me a chance. Now they are proud of me . Rawida, from Kober explained that the toughest part is going against social norms or traditions, something which emerged during the spread of the pandemic. It is extremely difficult to convince people to do something like not going to a funeral, a wedding or social invitations from relatives… It astonishes me because if they apply what it says in the Quran, pandemics are mentioned and also the need for isolation. This task (convincing people) is extremely difficult, and it feels like the labour of ants .
Survival mechanisms and community resilience All three women initiated creative solutions during the confinement to help communities in their villages survive the crises. Both Ruwda and Aisha Nemer invested their efforts in the growing of vegetables to sustain poor families. We started growing onions, lettuce, parsley, tomatoes and many other vegetables, some women were responsible for cultivating vegetables, others started allocating and preparing baskets for poor families in the village, you know poor people don’t really say they need food, they are shy. We would prepare a basket add a couple of eggs and leave it in front of their door. Preparing baskets for families in need was a common practice adopted during the first intifada (1987). Women were praised for their roles in strengthening Palestinian communities; furthermore they were active in political roles, demonstrations, and confrontations with Israeli occupation forces, in addition to visiting the families of those killed in the clashes, the wounded and the detained. Aisha Nemer succeeded in creating her cultivation project with the help of volunteers from the village: Since the quarantine period, we have managed to be completely self-sufficient in regard to food, we worked day and night on an area of 10 dunams (1 dunam = 1000 m2) and planted several kinds of vegetables and then distributed them to local residents. Today I oversaw the distribution of 63 kilos of tomatoes, I am so proud of our accomplishment.
Conclusion The pandemic aggravated pre-existing and deteriorating economic conditions as well as the health situation in the West Bank, causing mounting levels of uncertainty as well as psychological stress and consequently rising hostility and domestic violence towards women. The three women interviewed could mitigate the crises as women. Furthermore, two of them managed to initiate surprisingly successful agricultural projects. The nature of the measures proposed by the PA prioritized food and medical assistance over other considerations such as domestic violence and policies, thereby reinforcing stereotypical domestic roles for women. Even though the Council of Ministers issued a policy to include women in emergency committees, victims of domestic violence faced considerable delays in referral for the provision of protection shelters from the beginning of confinement. The Palestinian legal system is based on old Jordanian and Egyptian laws dating back to the 1950s. These are founded on gender inequality stemming from patriarchal traditions and customs that continue to enrich and legitimize active discrimination against women and girls. Accentuating reproductive and domestic duties and connecting the survival of the family with these roles, the authorities have in fact left the entire responsibility of the pandemic crisis to the Palestinian women.
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