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Why Gender Matters in Humanitarian Action in Gaza

By Heba Zayyan

The Gaza Strip remains in a protracted humanitarian crisis due to an Israeli blockade, successive rounds of conflict, and the ongoing internal Palestinian divide. A deteriorating humanitarian situation, high unemployment, food insecurity, electricity blackouts, and sanitation disasters have increased poverty and overwhelmed social and humanitarian services. Seventy-one percent of Gaza’s 2.1 million residents are thought to be in need. Only one-tenth of Gazan households have direct access to safe drinking water and over half live below the poverty line. Roughly half of Palestinians in Gaza are women and girls who are differently and disproportionately affected by this dire humanitarian situation. Yet, the relationship between humanitarian needs and gender inequality is yet to be fully understood by many humanitarian policymakers and practitioners.

Challenge yourself. Graffiti on the walls of Gaza done as part of a documentary about gender-based violence.
Artist: Salman Al Nawati /UN Women.

Women and girls experience conflict and crises differently because they are impacted by gender norms and preexisting inequalities that make them more vulnerable and limit their coping abilities. While the dire humanitarian situation and accumulative harmful impact of the blockade have taken their toll on all Gazans, they have resulted in increased levels of gender-based and domestic violence whose usual victims are women and girls. School dropouts and early and forced marriages are also consequences of socioeconomic crises that impact girls more than boys. Through six case studies conducted in Gaza, UN Women has recently illustrated the necessity of mainstreaming gender in the understanding of the humanitarian situation and in the response to the distinct circumstances and needs of women, men, boys, and girls.

Face your fears.

Gaza’s recurrent winter floods and nonfunctional sewage systems, for example, have exposed an already vulnerable population to waterborne diseases, property losses, disruption in access to livelihoods and services, and displacement. While on the face of it, floods affect entire families and communities, they are much harsher on women precisely because of their gender role as the guardians of the house and guarantors of its hygiene standards. Dealing with the aftermath of flooding or sewage leaks in a house is no easy task.

“We live in an emergency state for the four months of winter. The cold and polluted water goes into our home. All this cleaning up and other tasks are the cause of chronic pain in my knees.”
Mrs. A. D., a Gaza resident

Having access to clean drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (known as WASH) is paramount to alleviate people’s hardships and limit disease and epidemics in humanitarian situations. Access to proper sanitation as well as related knowledge and practices are directly influenced by gender relations and roles. Responsibilities to ensure adequate water, hygiene, and sanitation standards in Gaza, like elsewhere, are typically undertaken by women since they are the ones responsible for meeting the family’s basic needs inside the house. Having clean and adequate water close to the home and better sanitation systems can dramatically reduce women’s workloads and free up time for other activities, including paid employment. This can also reduce the risk of girls dropping out of school to help their mothers at home. A risk that boys rarely face.

Build your future.

Ensuring food security is another field of humanitarian action that can benefit from a strengthened focus on gender. For example, women’s essential, and often unpaid, contribution to the agricultural sector is often overlooked in the humanitarian response to the Strip’s chronic food insecurity. Gazan female farmers continue to face gendered barriers to land ownership and agricultural livelihoods.

Dream like Rafiqa.

“Most people around me think that education has no value for a girl; regardless of the education she attains, she will end up in the kitchen; so we see no point in education.”
a school-age girl in Gaza

Drug addiction is another issue where gender relations and stereotypes need to be adequately understood. The perpetually deteriorating socioeconomic conditions in Gaza have not only increased rates of trauma and psychosocial problems, but when combined with a defunct health care system and systemic restrictions on movement, especially for women, they have aggravated the spread of drug abuse.  Female drug addicts are more likely to experience gender-based and domestic violence. Men and boys, on the other hand, are more likely to be treated as ill and in need of support and treatment to overcome their addiction. Moreover, cultural norms and expectations that women and girls are “chaste” and “honorable” often deny that women and girls can resort to drug use. Not only does this perception obstruct possible support, but it also conceals the warning signs and symptoms that girls and women show.

“I tried to tell my family many times. I finally told my mother, because I knew she wouldn’t disgrace her daughter….I feel so much indignation towards society….When my school principal found out about my case, she suspended me and shamed me,” said a high school female student.

Education is a key sector of humanitarian action in Gaza. The main challenges for schoolchildren and youth in the Strip include lack of access to quality schooling and safe, child-friendly learning environments. This has led many students and parents to give up on education, particularly in the access-restricted area in Gaza. Many boys leave school to work and help the family, while many girls drop out to help their mothers with household chores. Some parents might opt to marry them off at a young age to save expenses and/or worry less about their safety and harassment on their way to school.

Providing effective health services to affected people must be gender-responsive. For example, timely access to information on cancer-related services and diagnosis can save women’s lives. But because of the stigma that is sometimes associated with breast cancer, many women in Gaza try to hide their illness from their families and husbands until the disease advances into severe stages and can no longer be hidden. Men with cancer, on the other hand, are more likely to be seen as ill and in need of immediate medical care, without issues of stigma framing their illness.

The ladder to success is waiting for you to take the first step.

These are but a few examples of how humanitarian situations have gendered impacts. Even what seems to affect everyone can be experienced differently depending on gender.  While the different needs of women, girls, men, and boys are increasingly mainstreamed into humanitarian aid planning, implementation, and monitoring, more adequate and comprehensive integration of gender can go a long way in alleviating the hardships of all those living in a protracted humanitarian crisis, including women and girls. This can only be achieved by recognizing and making good use of the roles that women play as responders to humanitarian needs. Indeed, women provide food, water, shelter, and health care and protect their family members in the most extreme circumstances. Humanitarian actors need to fully recognize women’s contribution to family and community resilience and provide them with the support that meets their distinct needs and concerns.

  • Heba Zayyan is the Head of UN Women’s Gaza Sub-Office. She has more than 17 years of work experience in the field of gender equality and women’s empowerment. Ms. Zayyan leads UN Women’s portfolio on women, peace, security, and humanitarian action in Palestine.

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