Doing something very difficult

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Doing something very difficult A Palestinian organization is working to stop violence against women in the Occupied Territories, Michaela Whitton reports.


Wall art in Bethlehem. January 2016. by Michaela Whitton

The Occupied Palestinian Territories has had terrible problems because of the long Israeli occupation for more than 60 years. The media see Palestinians as simply heroes, simply victims, or simply criminals. This does not show the true situation and does not help the millions trying to get on with life. But there has been violence in the West Bank and Gaza for many years. There are many discussions about political violence in public and in the media. But the way people think about violence in the home and sexual violence means that they do not report these problems.

There are many reasons for violence against Palestinian women. Poverty and the occupation, and a society controlled by men are some of the reasons.

Often society thinks women are less important and less able than men and this takes away their human rights. Laws made by men take away women’s rights in the home, at work, and in public places. Women are not in a position to make decisions and this makes changes to the law slow and difficult.

Poverty and unemployment in the West Bank and Gaza are reasons for violence in general, but especially against women. And with the terrible political situation, there is a high level of violence usually by men under the military occupation. In 2011 a survey by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics showed that 37 per cent of Palestinian women suffered violence by their husbands. Saeda N. Al-Atrash is Director of the Mehwar Centre, one of three women’s shelters in the West Bank. She said that it is impossible to know the numbers of abused women.

She said. ‘We accept about 40 women a year but, of course the number of victims is much higher. We only shelter very serious cases, but women can be victims of violence without being beaten. Many cases are psychological, their health is destroyed or women are not looked after. Many things aren’t talked about because of shame, especially sexual violence and incest.’

Showing the truth

Lawyer Jalal Khader recently returned from Paris after receiving an award for his NGO’s work in showing the truth about secrets in Palestinian society. SAWA means ‘together’ in Arabic. It started in 1998 to help victims of domestic and sexual violence. It is now a leading Palestinian organization working to stop abuse against women and children. Development Manager Khader wants to find answers to problems that are not talked about. He talks about using technologies that private companies use to make money, to help the victims of violence. SAWA’s mobile clinic works in isolated areas of the West Bank to discuss sex education, sexual violence, drugs, and child labour. There are discussions to show the truth about problems that are not talked about, like paedophilia, incest, and prostitution. Face-to-face counselling for abuse victims is free and SAWA started Palestine’s first men-only programme to discuss violence against women.



SAWA has trained the Palestinian police to work sensitively with family violence. Plain-clothed police are now working with the Family Protection Unit (FPU) to listen and advise. Khader said they need more training but it’s a good start.

‘In Palestinian society, when you mention the police it means violence and law,’ he said. ‘So seeing officers working closely with women and children and trying to understand social problems is very important.’

Blaming the victim

SAWA has a free national helpline for women and children in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel. 60 per cent of callers are women and 72 per cent under 21. Helpline adverts on the back of bus tickets have the important messages: ‘You are not alone’ or ‘If someone hurts you, call 121.’

‘Last year, we answered the phone 1,200,000 times,’ Khader said.

Approximately 60 per cent of calls come from Gaza. It was 75 per cent during Israel’s 2014 ‘Operation Protective Edge’ attack on the crowded territory. Palestinians in Gaza have lived through three wars in six years, and so Khader is not surprised by the number of calls.

‘Where in the world is it possible that two million people cannot leave and if they leave, they can’t come back? It’s inhuman!’ he said.

There are different reasons for the number of people using the helpline. Some have no one to talk to. There is a rise in violence against women in Palestine but women and girls often choose silence. They are afraid of what people or their family will think. They may blame themselves or people in the communities may blame them.

‘It’s very common to blame the victim here,’ Khader said sadly.

There is a 110-hour training program and volunteers often find it changes them deeply. ‘Some even change the way they dress. Family and friends don’t recognise them,’ Khader laughed. ‘Volunteers have to learn to accept others the way they are. That’s how you make changes,’ he said. ‘The most important thing is that we don’t give answers to people. We must help them to find answers themselves, then, they won’t need to call us next time.’ With the help of smartphones, SAWA’s Facebook page received 146,000 followers in two years.. Some posts had more than 2 million views.

Prevention not protection

The result of more violence since October is 30 Israelis dead and over 150 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces. In the West Bank, there is very great stress. Palestinians are afraid to travel because Israeli soldiers may shoot them at any time. Parents are afraid to let children leave the house. Domestic violence usually increases during times of increased conflict and Saeda Al-Atrash is worried that fewer women are asking for help.

The political situation has never been so bad for Palestinians. But many like Al-Atrash and Khader do not stop working for women’s rights and equality. Al-Atrash said, ‘If we want change we must work with students,’ she said. ‘The most important thing is not protection but prevention ─ from the beginning. We must protect women but when you change the way people think, you stop violence. We need to teach the rights of human beings from childhood, from the start. At the moment we don’t.’