Women in Gaza find ways to cope with challenges, UNRWA study shows

The study was conducted between May and August, and included focus groups and in-person interviews with several dozen women in different locations in the Strip.

Palestinian women sit at the debris of a house destroyed in an air strike in the southern Gaza Strip November 13, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA)
Palestinian women sit at the debris of a house destroyed in an air strike in the southern Gaza Strip November 13, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA)
A new study by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has shed light on how women in Gaza cope with difficulties.
The study was conducted between May and August, and included focus groups and in-person interviews with several dozen women in different locations in the Strip.
“In a place under blockade for nearly 13 years, with poverty soaring at 53% and where over 70% of the population is made up of Palestine refugees, we needed to understand – beyond the statistics – how women manage lives on a day-to-day basis,” explained Dorothée Klaus, the Director of the UNRWA Department of Relief and Social Services and the commissioner of the report.
“How exactly are they coping with what is a living environment of great economic and social stress?" she asked. "Did they have to change long-inherited habits to be able to keep their and their families’ lives together? Did they see their traditional roles change over the years, and if so, in what way and at what cost – psychologically and other?”
According to the report, almost half (49%) of the women in Gaza feel unable to make long-term plans, while one out of three women have held roles beneath their education or skills.
Moreover, 20% of the respondents said that in the two weeks prior to the survey, at no point did they feel that their daily life was filled with things that interest them.
Women in Gaza also find themselves living in a traditional society where they are expected to fulfill certain functions within their households and challenge stereotypes. One in three stated that in the past they held a role resulting in family or community disapproval or resistance. The problem is often accentuated if they do not have a husband who provides for their family.
“My husband said he was going to Egypt for a week – that was 11 years ago,” said Sana, a 39-years-old mother of eight children.
“First, I sold the furniture. I received a portion of his salary until the PA realized he was out of Gaza and [they] cut it. Things got worse and I knew I had to find a job. I worked in homes caring for elderly people, even changing their diapers. It was hard and disapproved of,” she added.
Sana admitted that she encouraged her children to find safe jobs as opposed to follow their dreams or pursue higher education.

ACCORDING TO data quoted by the report, Gaza currently registers a 52% unemployment rate, a 69% food insecurity rate and a 53% poverty rate.
“I studied IT which was supposed to lead to good job opportunities, but now there are so many IT graduates and so few jobs, they’ve stopped offering it as a course,” Jameela, a 24-years-old single woman said. “I used to have a lot of students, but now many parents can’t afford extra tutoring”, she said, adding that she has opened a stationary store near her house instead.
Indeed, attempts to establish new business initiatives, which are not always successful, are among the strategies used by Gazan women to cope with the difficult economic situation.
“One will never understand the power that exists inside every woman we spoke to unless one has heard her describe how she managed different aspects of her and her family’s life,” Klaus said.
“The resourcefulness of the women we met in Gaza is genius at every level; it is the glue that keeps their community together," she added. "But at the same time, all of these women pointed out the very limitations of trying to cope; the great burden weighing on their shoulders as they are talking about the breaking points they have reached."
The Gaza Strip has been ruled by Hamas since 2007. As noted in the report, its borders, both with Israel and with Egypt, are closed. “The blockade has been ongoing since 2007, imposed by Israel for security reasons after the takeover by Hamas,” the report said.
Israel and the United States have been very critical of UNRWA.
“UNRWA is a burden on the international community,” Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon told The Jerusalem Post on October 31, as Jerusalem and Washington were carrying out an effort to prevent the renewal of the agency’s mandate.
The renewal, which occurs every three years and is typically a fairly standard procedure for the 71-year old agency, was eventually approved earlier this month.
“UNRWA utilizes the world’s funds for disseminating lies and false narratives against the State of Israel and systematically ignores fulfilling the goal for which it was established,” Danon added.
Earlier this year, the agency also made headlines for reports uncovering ethical misconduct among senior officials.
At the beginning of November, its Commissioner General Pierre Krähenbühl stepped aside pending the ongoing inquiry into the agency's management-related matters.
The investigation into UNRWA has been carried out by the Office of Internal Oversight Services since July.
Pending the investigation, Switzerland and Holland have suspended payments to the organization.