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The Paradoxical Reality of Women’s Protection from Violence

By Ayesha AlRifai

Women in Arab societies, including in Palestine, have not gained their rights, and “masculine thought” dominates the mindset of most men and women. This is particularly evident in violence perpetrated against women (VAW). Central to the Palestinian experience is patriarchy and its formal and informal structures that intersect with the Israeli occupation and its impact on men and women. Women and girls, particularly in Area C in the West Bank and refugee camps, and in camps for Gazans internally displaced through repeated wars, for example, face higher rates of violence. At the same time, their access to health, social, and legal services is hampered or prevented due to Israeli movement restrictions, which denies survivors access to protection. It is paradoxical that while engagement to combat violence against women has increased in scope and magnitude, the number of women reported as survivors or victims of violence has increased significantly and alarmingly. Most disturbing, perhaps, is the number of girls and women killed in so-called honor killings: the bloody crime that continues to be poorly accounted for by Palestinian justice actors and the government at large.*1
In most countries, including Palestine, the majority of women and men surveyed in 2022 by Arab Barometer perceive structural barriers as having a greater impact than cultural barriers in the reporting and prevention of VAW.*2 It means that governments could develop and implement better policies to address existing challenges and increase gender parity in both public and private life – if the necessary political will were present.
We are witnessing a pervasive lack of political will to promote or enforce change through laws, norms, or services that support women who experience or are threatened by violence. This inaction is driven by masculine thought and benefits from unjust social norms, the misinterpretation of religious doctrine, and extremists’ mobilization of the community. It aims to bring the state to relinquish its duty to truly and genuinely protect women from violence. As a result, more Palestinian girls and women are experiencing violence – including femicide – perpetrated mainly by husbands or other male family members.

The argument that this rise in VAW is due to service availability and the declining taboo around VAW is overturned by results from the 2019 Violence Survey carried out by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), which indicates that more than two-thirds of women who experienced violence by their husbands chose to remain silent. Only 1 to 3 percent contacted a psychosocial or legal assistance center, reported to a police station or the family protection unit to file a complaint or request protection from their husband, or approached a lawyer to file a lawsuit against him. At the same time, 40 percent of currently married women (aged 18 to 64 years) who experienced a form of violence reported that they were aware that institutions that protect from violence existed in their area or governorate.*3
On the other hand, service providers fail to care for VAW survivors for fear of reprisals in a context where they have no legal protection. In addition, activists from women’s rights organizations face intimidation and threats, raising concerns about their own safety as the judicial authorities fail to address their concerns.
Furthermore, it is no rare occurrence that women or girls who survived violence perpetrated by family members are killed upon leaving the shelters to which they resorted for temporary refuge. Justice to the killed girl or woman in a fair trial of the killer or killers is not guaranteed, as ‘honor’ claims tend to be brought into the scene swiftly in rescue of the perpetrators, who benefit from the mitigation of penalty that is permitted by law in cases of ‘honor’ crimes. It has been observed frequently that the Public Prosecution office’s Family Protection Unit withholds information on the results of investigations into honor crimes. This compounded form of structural violence is one of the most vicious intimidation tools used by formal and informal social institutions against women and girls. It intimidates and prevents them from seeking help and protection from violence outside the private sphere when their right to safety and security is incessantly violated by those who are assumed to be protectors and lovers. Moreover, when coming forward, women victims of violence are alleged to bring shame and dishonor upon the family – whose members themselves are often the offenders and thus the true source of family dishonor. This social pathology constitutes an extreme form of punishment of the victims who speak out about the violence that they have endured.
Violence against women in 2021: gendered assessment of increase. Graphic courtesy of Arab Barometer.*5

Along the same lines, clear majorities of women and men in most of the eleven countries surveyed by the Seventh Arab Barometer 2022, including Palestine, believe that women should not play the same role as men in both the public and private spheres. It also reported the widespread perception that violence against women was increasing in the region. When they were asked whether violence had increased, remained the same, or decreased, the most common answer was “increased” in seven out of eleven countries. In four countries, including Palestine (54 percent), more than half of citizens said violence has increased. In the three countries where an increase was not the most common answer, most citizens said they thought violence against women was staying the same in the community, with more than a quarter (26 percent) of the Palestinian participants choosing this response.*4
However, the gap between men’s and women’s perceptions of violence is significant. In all countries surveyed, women are significantly more likely than men to report that violence has increased (58 percent average in MENA; 49 percent in Palestine). While in most cases, men are more likely than women to say that violence has decreased over the past year. Although not surprising, the gap in perceptions of violence against women is worrying because men control most government decisions. When men underestimate the importance or prevalence of violence against women in the community, or believe that women lie about it, it is unlikely that this issue will be adequately addressed. It also indicates that if addressed it is unlikely to be done with the right attitudes and ethical practice on the side of service providers.
Women’s perceptions resonate well with the reality of violence against women. The most recent national survey on gender-based violence (GBV) showed that around two-thirds (59.3 percent) of Palestinian women experienced some form of violence in 2019, compared with 37 percent in 2011.*6 This is the situation years after Palestine ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) by Presidential Decree No. 19 of 2009 and acceded to it in 2014. The action taken to accede has not been published in the national gazette, which makes it nonbinding.
On the policy level, both the National Strategy to Combat Violence Against Women 2011–2019 and the National Policy Agenda 2017–2022 include the explicit objective to promote gender equality and justice and to combat violence. A cross-sectoral strategy was formulated and national protocols were developed to create mechanisms in the health, social, and police sectors for dealing with women survivors of violence through a national referral system for women survivors of violence (No. 18, 2013).*7 However, the approach by which GBV is addressed is evidently selective and inconsistent, with little coordination between the various actors. Only less sensitive and non-challenging GBV issues are addressed, focusing on women with the almost full exclusion of other involved parties. Perpetrators, for example, the majority of whom are men, are not on the agendas of either policy makers or service providers. Information on rehabilitation services that would be offered to perpetrators or to children who have witnessed domestic violence cannot be found anywhere. One of the main inconsistencies is related to institutional practices: no resources are invested into the creation of a favorable and supportive environment for service-seeking survivors of violence. This manifests in the poor attitudes and behavior of service providers towards the women survivors of violence in many service sectors.
In November 2019, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, with generous financial support from the Italian government, initiated the establishment of a national observatory system to maintain a unified national register of GBV incidents.*8 This resource could form a strong base for planning and policy formulation processes. Lengthy discussions were held about how to ensure confidentiality, what forms to use for documentation, what coding system to use, who should be able to access what information, and related questions. However, progress stalled before the system’s completion, and information on the status of the work is not available.
Although Palestine joined CEDAW in 2014, the legal system still does not protect women’s civil and criminal rights. A mobilization and strong opposition to the Family Protection Law began in 2019 when a law raising the minimum age for marriage had been passed. It is widely believed that the Family Protection Law and other related laws are spaces in which it is less critical for people to voice opposition to the PA’s policies and performance. With women having less political power, most politicians don’t bother to support women’s rights or reform regressive laws, particularly as their patriarchal mindset does not assign value to efforts exerted with regard to such “insignificant” matters. This indicates that the PNA has made only a formal, rather than a substantial or actionable commitment to combating VAW. Improving the legal status of Palestinian women requires the will of political actors to pass and enforce the Family Protection Law and amend other laws, including the Personal Status Law and Penal Code. Establishing a gender-sensitive Family Protection Court with qualified judges from both sexes who are able to apply a gender lens to their work is another utterly needed area for government action.
The PNA’s indulgent and distant approach to social resistance, anti-feminist discourse, and growing fundamentalism has greatly weakened awareness and sensitization to women’s rights and efforts to combat VAW. Patriarchal expressions in dominant societal norms that support rigid gender roles, ongoing attempts to silence women’s rights organizations, public attacks and hostility towards feminist groups and individual feminist activists, and the apparent lack of state protection are all widespread security and societal concerns that the government must address.

There is good news in the results of the Seventh Wave of the Arab Barometer Survey. It highlights that there have been progressively important changes in attitudes towards gender, including awareness of VAW, over the course of 10 years. Awareness has increased by more than 10 points in 5 of the 7 Arab countries, including Sudan (13 points), Lebanon (13 points), Egypt (23 points), Tunisia (25 points), and Palestine (26 points). Egypt and Palestine, two places where both men and women largely agree that men make better political leaders, saw the second and third biggest shifts in opinion on the matter. Disagreement with the opinion that men are better political leaders increased by 21 points in Egypt (from 9 percent in 2011 to 30 percent in 2022) and by 20 points in Palestine (from 15 percent in 2006 to 35 percent in 2021).*9
Empowerment is the process by which those who have been denied the ability to make strategic life choices acquire such an ability. According to prominent scholar Naila Kabeer, the ability to exercise choice encompasses three indivisible dimensions: resources, including access and future claims to material, human, and social resources; agency, including decision-making and negotiation processes; and achievements, which are the outcomes of well-being.*10
It is readily apparent that Palestinian women’s empowerment in the context of the high levels of composite, multifaceted structural violence that they experience requires real government commitment that must materialize holistically to close the existing gaps. Improving the situation of Palestinian women requires social norms and political will, laws and their implementation, information and research, services and resources, intersectoral coordinated plans and policies, and accountability for proper implementation.

*1 Dubravka Šimonović, “Femicide in the Palestinian Society: Report submitted to Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences,” Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling, April 2021, available at https://www.wclac.org/files/library/21/05/kwlfxzf6pgplulmdtihqmo.pdf.
*2 Mary Clare Roche, “Gender Attitudes and Trends in MENA: Wave VII Gender Report,” Arab Barometer, September 2022, available at https://www.arabbarometer.org/wp-content/uploads/ABVII_Gender_Report-ENG.pdf.
*3 Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), “Palestine: Violence Survey in the Palestinian Society 2019,” PCBS, 2019, available at https://www.pcbs.gov.ps/PCBS-Metadata-en-v4.3/index.php/catalog/693.
*4 Mary Clare Roche, “Gender Attitudes and Trends in MENA,” pp. 26–9.
*5 Mary Clare Roche, “Gender Attitudes and Trends in MENA.” p. 28.
*6 PCBS, “Palestine: Violence Survey 2019.”
*7 “Comprehensive Analysis for Gender Based Violence and the Status of the National Referral System in the West Bank,” August 2016, pg. 11, available at http://www.awrad.org/files/server/NRS%20report%20english%202016.pdf.
*8 “Gender-Based Violence Observatory,” Palestinian National Institute of Public Health, available at https://www.pniph.org/index.php/en/pniph-a-z-listing/93-health-systems/205-gbv-observatory
*9 Mary Clare Roche, “Gender Attitudes and Trends in MENA,” pp. 3–9.
*10 Naila Kabeer, “Resources, Agency, Achievements: Reflections on the Measurement of Women’s Empowerment,” Development and Change 30(3), 2002, pp. 435–64, available at https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-7660.00125.

  • Ayesha AlRifai is a health and gender scholar and a policy and evaluation expert. She currently works as a freelance consultant, including for national, international, UN, and government aid agencies, and is a visiting scholar at Birzeit University’s Institute of Public Health. She has over 30 years of experience in teaching, management, research, and advising of MSc and doctoral theses at Palestinian and international universities, including in Egypt, Malaysia, and Britain. She is the author and reviewer of numerous peer-reviewed articles in journals such as Health and Human Rights Journal, Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention, Global Health Promotion, and European Journal of Public Health.

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