Violence against women in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) does not only stem from deeply-rooted patriarchal norms, but also from the experience of the Israeli occupation. Existing literature shows a direct link between the increase in Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) and exposure to occupation-related violence. The more people are exposed to violence from the occupation or perpetuated by settlers, the more likely they will take it home with them.
The correlation between political violence and patriarchal structures means levels of violence in Gaza are higher than in the West Bank. Three consecutive wars and an ongoing Israeli blockade have taken away people’s freedom of movement and ability to trade, leading to a deterioration of the economic situation, and a lack of economic and human security. Those have in turn increased Palestinians’ levels of stress particularly at home, making women more vulnerable to domestic abuse.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue of violence against women worldwide, as it did in OPT. Many civil society and women’s rights organisations have reported an increase in the number of phone calls and consultations sought by SGBV survivors during lockdowns. For example, the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counselling (WCLAC), witnessed throughout the lockdown period an increase in the number of women who reported threats to their lives, particularly noticeable one month into the state of emergency.
A recent study conducted by the Oxfam-led Naseej project confirmed for instance that in East Jerusalem, 99% of respondents agreed that violence against women and girls (VAWG) increased since the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as 84% of respondents from Jericho and the Jordan Valley, and 77% from Hebron. Such figures indicate that the levels of violence in these areas have been much higher in the year 2020. With the decreased capacity of service providers throughout the pandemic due to the restrictions of movement and lockdowns, the impact of VAWG will be harsher.
Typology of SGBV in Palestine
Data from the 2019 Violence Survey of Palestinian Society conducted by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), indicates that 29% of currently/ever-married women (aged 18-64) reported that they had experienced SGBV at least once in their lifetime. The survey also found that 9% of women currently married or ever married (18-64) experienced sexual violence from their husbands. However, all CSOs interviewed for the Naseej study (16 organisations) agreed that the prevalence of violence in Palestinian society is much higher than what was published in the survey.
Psychological violence is the most common type of abuse detected by the PCBS, affecting 57% of the women who reported some form of violence in the preceding year. The data from PCBS on the prevalence of psychological violence is backed up by data from the Naseej research, as 78% of female respondents agreed that verbal abuse is the most common type of violence.
Much of the violence committed against women is justified by social norms, impunity for the perpetrator, and the expectation of tolerance from the survivor not only by family members but also wider society. Survivors of violence are expected to tolerate and endure the abuse for the sake of their family and children.
“The law is not fair to women, even when going to court to get custody, divorce, or inheritance, they tell you that the law is with women…. but when I complain about my brother or ask for my rights, why am I asked to leave? ….. [they say] Just bear with it for your husband and children, and for your parents.”
(Female respondent from Gaza)
Harmful social norms like the culture of “honour” including what is known as “Eib” (shame) engulfs women and girl’s behaviours and bears the expectation that women should remain silent if they experience any form of violence. If they refuse to do so, the violence that is committed against them is justified. As one respondent said: “to summarize it we live in a culture of what is frowned upon by society, “Eib”- shame. Which is a set of rules and behavioural limitations…For example, it is frowned upon for a female to go out at night or walk with her brother.” Perpetrators of violence are usually known to survivors and are in their circle or community: the top three perpetrators of violence according to the baseline survey are the husband (40%), father (24%) and relative (17%).
Women’s Rights Organizations leading the efforts to end SGBV
Women’s Rights Organisations in Palestine, including many of Oxfam local partners, are active in the battle to tackle violence against women. Their collective effort for example supported the development of a national referral system which keeps on improving. WROs are also engaged in different awareness-raising activities. Since 2004, they have in fact been strongly advocating for the Palestinian Authority (PA) to pass a Family Protection Bill that is crucial in the fight to end VAW in OPT. They provide services to SGBV survivors and refer them to get the specialized support they need. WROs continue to work with different segments of society in order to change harmful social norms that perpetuate and justify violence against women, raising awareness on the negative impact of VAW and on concepts of gender equality.
Thanks to the Naseej project implemented by Oxfam, local civil society organisations and women’s rights organizations, we will be able to channel financial support to these actors to improve SGBV services and referral systems, to support their work on harmful social norms and their advocacy efforts to improve legislation to eliminate violence against women.
At the same time, we realize that because violence against women is a global issue, having the space to meet, discuss and reflect is incredibly significant to women’s rights organisations fighting to eradicate SGBV in the region. By providing such spaces for these organisations to exchange, network and learn from each other’s experiences, we hope to contribute with concrete steps to the eradication of VAW in the region.
Note on methodology: This piece is based on data collected between September 9th and October 1st 2020 by conducting a survey with 623 respondents, including 208 males and 415 females. The respondents were randomly selected from 8 governorates in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the West Bank, respondents were randomly selected in Qalqilia, Salfit, Jericho, East Jerusalem, and Hebron. Data collection was conducted with respondents from Khan Younis and Rafah in the Gaza Strip.
Moreover, 5 focus groups with members of vulnerable communities were conducted, in addition to 17 in-depth interviews with psychosocial and legal experts from women’s rights service providers, and 17 interviews with experts from CSOs, governmental institutions and international organizations, focusing on the types of services they provide and in which areas.