By Rachelle Kliger
The vast majority of women in Gaza face violence of varying types, a new survey has found.
The study, by the Gaza-based Palestinian Women's Information and Media Center, found that violence against women in Gaza has increased since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in the June 2007 coup and Israel subsequently imposed restrictions on the coastal enclave.
The study found that 77.1% of Gazan women have experienced violence of various sorts, with almost half experiencing violence of more than one type.
A quarter of the women said they do not feel safe in their own homes because of violence and more than a third said they were unable to fight back as they had more urgent priorities to deal with.
67% of the women surveyed said they had encountered verbal violence, 71% mental violence, 52% physical violence and more than 14% sexual violence.
"I think the levels [of violence] are higher than they were in the Gaza Strip in previous years and compared to other countries, the rates are certainly higher," Huda Hamouda, Director of the PWIC told The Media Line. "It's hard to imagine a family living in dignity when seven family members are living on less than three dollars a day."
"Many say they suffer from disrespect and deprecation," Hamouda said. "There's also domestic violence, which is committed by relatives such as the father, the brother or the husband."
Women are exposed to hardships in every sphere be it financial, social, political or lack of security, she said.
"There's widespread unemployment and the number of female workers has gone down," Hamouda explained. "It was 14.5% in 2006 and now it's less than 10%."
The organization's researchers conducted interviews with 350 women from different districts of the Gaza Strip during the last quarter of 2009.
According to the report almost two thirds of the women who were interviewed were the breadwinners in their families and about the same number were dependent on handouts from international aid organizations.
Some 31% of the married women were either divorced or said their husbands were threatening to divorce them because of the financial situation.
"[Poverty] affects education and public participation," Hamouda said. "It limits their social standing. Add to that the social norms that prevail in society preventing women's freedom and covering up the violence. The authorities impose this culture."
The women's rights advocate said the Hamas government is trying to impose a certain ideology, which includes forcing women to wear the hijab, religious head covering, implying that this has eroded the standing of Gazan women.
"They're imposing their directives and they're encountering opposition from certain groups, human-rights organizations and unions," Hamouda said. "It's understood that in society there is no pluralism or freedom of thought. It's one side imposing its understandings on those under its control."
Last summer the chief justice prompted a public outcry when he decreed that female lawyers must wear the hijab in court. Recently the Hamas religious police have reprimanded women for dressing in what they considered to be immodest clothing and instructed beach goers to cover up.
Hamas denies it is imposing strict religious laws in the Gaza Strip but anecdotal evidence suggests the Gazan population is becoming more religious.
A Gazan woman working in the private sector, who spoke to The Media Line on condition of anonymity, said it was important to realize the feeling of intimidation was not necessarily representative of all women in Gaza.
"I don't cover my hair and I don't feel intimidated or scared to walk in the street," she said. "Maybe it's because I live in the city in an area where all the international organizations work. It would depend on the level of income, the level of education and the environment surrounding of these women. I'm one of hundreds of thousands and I could be an exception."
Palestinian women's rights activists have told The Media Line that domestic violence is not tackled adequately by the Palestinian police, who often turn a blind eye to such complaints.
There are few shelters for battered women in the Palestinian territories.
Hamouda said laws to combat violence against women were lax and contributed to a culture of impunity for perpetrators, especially in relation to honor killings.
Honor killings are cases in which women accused of bringing dishonor to the family are killed by relatives. Killings often involve women suspected of fraternizing with men who are not their husbands or relatives.
"The authorities do punish them, but they have a weak law," Hamouda said. "When it comes to so-called honor crimes, the articles of the criminal laws still mete out mitigated sentences to the perpetrators. The organization is trying to increase awareness of violence against women and make it a higher priority for rights organization, civil society organizations and factions."
We want them to help women participate in public life and make this an important part of their strategy," she said. "Not just a political slogan."
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