How Does She Cope ? Women Pushed to New Limits in the Gaza Strip – UNRWA Report

Executive summary

In 2019, UNRWA commissioned a study into how women experience today’s conditions in the Gaza Strip, intending to strengthen people’s understanding of today’s situation. How does a local woman cope with enduring conflict, a 52 per cent unemployment rate,

a 69 per cent food insecurity rate and a 53 per cent poverty rate’? Over a hundred women were consulted from different areas and across the social spectrum, in discussion forums, interviews and home visits. This report captures findings of those consultations, and as much as possible includes perspectives of local women themselves2.

Gaza today is a unique context for women.

More than ever they support their families while men are absent or jobless. Many live with extended families and struggle to make an income because of economic limits but also due to rigid ideas about what is appropriate for women. Community assistance is stretched too thin, and a high level of education rarely translates into valued employment. Yet with mouths to feed and often debts to pay, women find ways to cope.

Day to day, women strain to keep the family going. They prepare less and cheaper food, borrow money, sell assets, and exchange food and other items if they can. Many cook with collected firewood, wake in the night to do housework while power is on, forego medical and other costs, and split rooms or homes to look after more people under one roof. They often seek help from parents and accept assistance from welfare and aid agencies. And they try, each time, to maintain their dignity and that of their children and their family.

Medium term, women devise dynamic, creative strategies to make an income.

  • Enterprises ‘suitable for women’ are preferred where possible. These are home-based, linked to food production, petty retail, child care and education, beauty or fashion. Projects are often multiple, often unsustainable, and done in addition to caring for children plus extended family.
  • Enterprises ‘unsuitable for women’ are done if necessary, against community and family resistance. These are public-facing e.g. at market stalls or shops, or culturally frowned upon e.g. care work in private homes. They require tenacity and willingness to resist pressure or stress. Creative strategies include giving the enterprise a ‘male front’ with a husband or son, or trading online to avoid entering a hostile male space.
  • ‘New enterprises’ might be adopted by a younger generation, e.g. IT roles and mobile phone fixing. Yet the market is fickle even for traditional enterprises, people’s spending is constrained, and men are often preferred in the marketplace.
  • Working the welfare or aid system has become a livelihood in itself, with women networking and navigating their way to food, cash, legal and livelihood support. Complex eligibility criteria or legal frameworks that favour men make this a bureaucratic labyrinth. Material benefits to be gained must be weighed against possible stigmatisation as divorced or inappropriate or ‘begging’. But this is a space where women can have agency, realise their rights, and potentially transform their situation at least for a while.

Long term, women rarely dare to plan.

Experience has taught people to look only so far ahead. For many women, thinking of the future means dreaming of escape or drawing on spiritual reserves of patience and strength. They lower children’s expectations, urging them to find job-safe vocations and reminding them of family obligations. This could mean deferring academic or travel opportunities, and delaying marriage. Daughters are cautioned about the years ahead. They are told to protect themselves with education, choose a partner wisely, and always show strength even if it’s just a disguise. There is everyday happiness to have, and ideas to nurture, but as a young woman of Gaza it is wise not to expect or plan for a secure future.

1   PCBS 2018, FSS & PCBS 2018, PCBS (ii)
2   Unless otherwise stated, all quotes are from Gazan women consulted for this study (see Methodology)


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