While the Coronavirus pandemic has hit almost every country on the planet, people living in the Gaza Strip are exhausted from having to find ways to navigate the paralysis of 13 years of blockade, recurrent escalations of violence and an atrophied economy. A 45% unemployment rate in 2019 in a Strip where 65% of Gaza’s population is under the age of 25, has created more desperation than ever. There is evidence of a rise in mental health issues, a decline in social cohesion and an exacerbation of gender inequalities. These systemic challenges are affecting both men and women differently. But the underlying gender inequalities, supported by a patriarchal system are compounding women’s vulnerabilities.
Amongst the fear and anxiety people are experiencing as a result of the global pandemic, women’s resilience in the Gaza Strip, is now undergoing a quiet death and forcing women backwards. About 60% of Palestinian women workers are part of the informal economy or “shadow economy” where women resort either to home-based production or are forced to work in unsuitable conditions without legal protection. Despite the proliferation of this “shadow economy”, women have been relentlessly working to level-up from micro to small businesses achieving and striving for better market penetration. In the same vein as political and economic events deplete purchasing power in Gaza, the Coronavirus crisis and placed emergency measures are greatly affecting women businesses and laborers. Oxfam’s Economic Justice team and partners conducted a listening exercise with 32 women businesses of different scale and geographic distribution on the impact of Coronavirus in the Gaza Strip. Below are the key challenges women voiced.
Deepening economic inequality
One key area relates to economic inequality based on business size and consequently its ability to adapt to the current crisis. Women medium-sized businesses are better able to adapt their working environment and invest in hygiene and safety measures that ensure employees stay safe while working. But micro and small women businesses have had to either greatly minimize or even pause their current production as the required adaptation measures are jeopardizing the minimum profit they gain.
The weak market demand and the absence of a culture supporting the purchase of local products and women businesses will add to their losses. The power of Palestinian women as consumers and customers is not being mobilized to support each other in times of crisis. While some women businesses are reshaping their houses to accommodate shifting their work to home production, all women businesses are already mourning their most profitable season, the month of Ramadan, where consumers purchase traditional food. With a reported increase in the prices of some items such as the 40% increase in fodder prices, women depending mainly on poultry and livestock breeding as their main income are losing their source of revenue.
Most women participating in the listening exercise reported the furlough of a varying percentage of their workers, the main family breadwinners. In Gaza, there are no effective government protection schemes and safety nets that relieve families that lost their income. Small businesses are not able to provide paid leave for their workers. Women worry about their ability to feed their families in the long run.
Heavy Care burden
Women in Gaza as well as in other countries in the region are considered responsible “for the physical, mental and emotional well-being of children, older people, and persons with disabilities.” Care establishments in the Gaza Strip are already limited, with few facilities for people with disabilities, the elderly or public childcare. Living within dilapidated infrastructure with limited access to electricity, proper education, safe drinking water, and exposure to recurrent conflict, have doubled the unpaid care and domestic work women have to bear.
School closures and the shift to online education for some schools requires women to stay at home to take care of all their families’ needs. In our study (which is yet to published) one businesswoman said “I have to stay with my children. I am multitasking all the time. I have to constantly think of new ways to engage with my children, so they can let go of their energy. I am planning competitions, drawing and coloring and reading stories. Since schools shifted to online teaching, I have to follow up with classes for each of my children, sit with them during these classes and do the teaching and check they are doing their homework.”
Because of the constant fear of contracting Coronavirus, women’s domestic work has been increasing exponentially where women are more likely to perform complete house cleaning on a daily basis, regularly giving their children baths, and cooking nonstop as children will ask for food more than three times a day. The amount of unpaid care and domestic work varies depending on the family size, economic and social status, age, number of children, disability and children with disability, and whether they are living in small or extended family.
The mental burden associated with keeping up with the kids’ online education schedule, following up on their homework, and worrying about their inability to provide food are leaving many women depressed and anxious. One businesswoman mentioned “from the amount of stress I had, I moved into a state of apathy. I couldn’t even teach my children or support them to complete their online courses. I am trying my best now to be fine for them.” The lack of services for women to deal with mental health exacerbates the issue. Home quarantine and social distancing are depriving women from the social support usually received from family members and friends, particularly those who can’t afford access to the internet or mobile communications.
While women businesses and workers are struggling to survive, their feelings of anxiety and fear are compounded as they worry about their families and children’s safety and stressing about their businesses and how they will make ends meet. Women businesses in the Gaza Strip constantly refer to their success as defying the impossible, due to the occupation and restrictive social norms. But the Coronavirus crisis is weighing them down and bringing them back to square one.