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Pandemic Means Redoubled Suffering for West Bank Women

Spike in domestic violence seen during coronavirus lockdown

A dozen women have entered shelters provided by the Palestinian Authority amid a jump in domestic violence in the West Bank. The spike accompanied a home curfew imposed on March 5 to counter the spread of coronavirus.

Hundreds of calls have been received from women subjected to psychological and physical violence as social and financial pressures mount.

Women’s Affairs Minister Amal Hamad told The Media Line that more than 120 complaints had been received, with 12 women having been transferred to secure places provided by the PA.

“Some of these women returned home after solving the issue,” she continued, saying these cases would receive follow-up from the relevant authorities.

Domestic violence is universal, affecting all peoples, Hamad emphasizes.

“Violence against women increased enormously worldwide because of the lockdowns, which subjected citizens to fear and stress that was reflected on females,” she said.

The burden on mothers in particular increased, she added, as their responsibilities doubled.

“Besides raising the kids and keeping house, mothers became responsible for their kids’ education after schools went virtual,” she noted. “Some of these women work [outside the home], too.”

Hamad stressed that on Monday, the PA cabinet will discuss an “integrated vision” of the proposed Family Protection Law, with a view to preparing it for passage.

“During the state of emergency and the abnormal situation, the government is dealing with more than one issue, and we are doing our best to cover all aspects,” she said.

For years, the Women’s Affairs Ministry has been working closely with NGOs in the West Bank to document violence against women and draft legislation to stop it.

Last year, following a wave of protests, the ministry said that by the end of 2019, the PA would enact a family protection law in the Palestinian territories. But that has yet to happen.

Sabah Salameh, coordinator of the Al Muntada Forum to Combat Violence against Women, told The Media Line that the real numbers of Palestinian women suffering from domestic violence are much higher than the published figures.

“I know about one women’s organization that received about a thousand calls from females suffering during the pandemic,” she said.

Salameh added that the number of cases showed the situation had passed the stage of danger merely to individuals and now threatened social peace and security, especially since the Palestinian judicial system has been “frozen” because of the pandemic.

“No prosecution, no courts, no hope,” she said.

She suggested that any solution have two aspects, chief among them legislation of the urgently needed Family Protection Law.

“In addition, there is social awareness, targeting men as well, especially the young generation,” she added. “In some villages, we have a group of males who are seeking positive social change in their communities.”

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 67% of women who divorced in the Palestinian territories in 2018 were aged 18 to 29, many of these divorces motivated by domestic violence.

In Gaza City, 37% of married females were younger than 18 when they wed, including 5% who married before the age of 15.

Sixty-three percent of young married women suffer violence at the hands of their husband, and 95% would not recommend early marriage for their daughters, according to statistics published by the Women’s Affairs Center.

Haifa al-Agha, a former Palestinian Authority women’s affairs minister based in Gaza, told The Media Line that the increase in domestic violence was expected, with violence against women by men noticed during previous events of war and curfews imposed by Israel.

“Because of the Israeli occupation and the important matters of the homeland, Jerusalem, the refugees and the right of return, such matters of domestic violence, which are extremely important, weren’t a priority or given the significance of other issues,” she explained.

Agha believes the PA’s delay in enacting the Family Protection legislation also has to do with differences of opinion among women’s organizations.

“Some groups want the [current draft of the] law, and some have asked for more time,” she said. “However, as important as passing the law is, its implementation on the ground is more important. Even if the government approves the law today, unless it is applied properly, it won’t work.”

Last year, PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh’s government passed a law setting the minimum age for matrimony at 18 for both genders, except in certain cases to be determined by the chief justice. Previously, the minimum age in the West Bank was 15 for females and 16 for males, while in the Gaza Strip it was 17 and 18, respectively.