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Gazan Women Go Entrepreneurial Amid Obstacles and COVID-19 (with VIDEO)

Determined pioneers overcome traditional attitudes, the Israeli-Egyptian blockade and the virus lockdown

The entire world is undergoing revolutionary change, caused by both the COVID-19 pandemic and its repercussions and by major political developments. The women of the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, are moving forward.

Perhaps surprisingly in the time of the outbreak, women in the coastal enclave are achieving significant success in breaking through the negative traditional stereotypes, social constraints and tremendous pressures that have long impeded their progress. More and more are getting involved in economic and productive activities, thereby ushering in a new era of change and empowerment.

For many reasons, women have always been the most affected by any crisis in the Strip.

The complicated composition of Gazan society, combined with the conservative eastern mentality and the profound collapse at nearly all levels due to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed since Hamas seized control 13 years, has produced devastating results.

By late 2019, the poverty and unemployment rates had both reached 75%, and 70% of the Strip’s residents were food insecure, Gaza’s Civil Affairs Ministry said last year.

The situation has since worsened with the arrival of the novel coronavirus to the region.

The outbreak and the ensuing lockdown have resulted in a shocking rise in domestic and gender-based violence in the Palestinian territories, according to several international and local feminist and human rights institutions.

Nour Alswirki, a project coordinator at the Center for Women’s Legal Research, Consultation and Protection (CWLRCP) in Gaza City, told The Media Line that, since the beginning of the pandemic, its psychological support and reporting lines had been receiving immense numbers of abuse reports from women subjected to ongoing violence.

An immediate intervention at the organizational level had to be undertaken to stop that toxic interaction and empower the victims, she said.

Alswirki said her institution was founded to bring justice and support for women, especially those who have been subjected to any type of violence or social hardship.

“We provide a wide range of services such as psychological support…, legal consultations, capacity building, in some cases financial support, and even a battered women’s shelter (the Hayat Shelter) for those threatened with extreme violence,” she continued.

She also noted that the center just concluded, in May, the “Holistic Protection Services Project for Women and Girls Victims of Violence in the Gaza Strip,” and six of the 60 women in the program were selected to receive grants to start their own small businesses.

The Holistic Protection Services Project is funded by the United Nations Humanitarian Fund-Occupied Palestinian Territory.

Doaa Habib, one of the small business grant recipients, is a young, divorced mother of a little girl. With the help of the project, she managed to open her own hair salon a month ago, thus providing an independent source of income for herself and her daughter.

Doaa Habib’s hair salon in central Gaza, May 13, 2020. (Courtesy)

“I was in a difficult psychological state and got seriously depressed right after the divorce. That’s why I wasn’t seeking a source of income when I first joined the Hayat Center; I just wanted to get rid of the depression and I did it thanks to them,” Habib told The Media Line.

“But later,” she continued, “I became stronger and more confident that I could run my own business and provide my daughter a dignified livelihood. I’m so happy and proud of myself that I’ve succeeded in doing what I always wanted.”

I became stronger and more confident that I could run my own business and provide my daughter a dignified livelihood. I’m so happy and proud of myself that I’ve succeeded in doing what I always wanted.

Esraa Abushar, a business practice program graduate, also benefitted from a grant; she opened her own educational center.

She personally gives Arabic and English language and handwriting courses, and other school subjects for all student levels are also taught at her center inaugurated last month.

Although Abushar is only 23, she went through two difficult divorces within seven years, and an ex-husband was granted custody of their two girls.

She told The Media Line that although she was severely beaten and humiliated by her husband, she begged him not to divorce her because she didn’t want to “repeat the bitter experience” and be subject to Gazan society’s scornful attitudes toward divorced women.

Her difficult financial status meant she was denied custody of her daughters, but she believes she will now be able to earn enough to change this.

For Abushar, achieving this and being a successful business owner is very much dependent on the return of normal life and the reopening schools and public facilities that have been shuttered due to the virus.

After years of hard work and saving, Sabrin Snounu, who started her own business almost a year and a half ago, is the chef/owner of the well-known Snounu restaurant in central Gaza.

The talented chef, her husband, their sons and their daughter are the main employees working in the restaurant, which quickly earned a good reputation as “the family’s restaurant.”

Sabrin Snounu at Snounu restaurant in central Gaza, June 15, 2020. (Hazem Albaz)

“It was not easy for me as a woman in the Gaza Strip to start my own business, basically because of the economic and social barriers, but the idea for ‘the Family’s restaurant’ helped to attract many customers to our place, which was reflected positively in our income,” Snounu told The Media Line.

Eventually, the results are worth the effort

But again, the pandemic had a harsh impact on the family’s livelihood.

“For two and a half months, we have been compliant with the measures and remained closed, which has caused us a heavy loss,” she stressed.

The good news is that the family resumed work three weeks ago, after authorities in the Gaza Strip moved to ease the anti-virus lockdown.

Despite the many challenges, Snounu is still positive and urges women to follow their dreams no matter how hard it may seem, because “eventually, the results are worth the effort,” she said.