International Women’s Day (8 March) is the global day to mark women’s achievements, to promote women’s rights and gender equality, and to struggle against gender-based discrimination. This year’s theme, “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”, honors the enormous efforts of women and girls around the world to achieve a more equal future in the post-pandemic world.
The social, economic and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are now known, yet one year after its outbreak, global data also shows another effect caused by the pandemic: a setback in women's rights and gender equality, both at the global and local levels.
In the Gaza Strip, occupied Palestinian territory, the pandemic-related health and socio-economic crisis has not only exacerbated the already catastrophic humanitarian conditions, but also had a regressive effect on women’s rights. For instance, the Palestinian Ministry of Women’s Affairs reported that the aggregate share of women in the local workforce dropped from 18 to 15 percent, as an increasing number of women have lost their jobs due to containment measures.
Indeed, COVID-19 containment measures and related restrictions have had and still have a significant impact on women, as they have exacerbated the burdens on family caregivers who are often women. Among the most vulnerable groups are impoverished women, working mothers, women working in the informal sector, and those receiving alimony and legal justice services.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, a dramatic surge in gender-based violence has also been reported. Statistics gathered by Al Mezan regarding rural women in the Gaza Strip confirm that an increase in domestic violence has occurred in parallel to the COVID-19 containment measures. This comes on top of other forms of gender-based violence that were recorded between October 2007 and March 2021. These include the so-called “honor killings”, which led to the killing of 29 women and girls, while another 18 were killed and 44 injured in family disputes and revenge incidents.
The local authorities in Gaza have also enacted policies that violate women’s rights and that have contributed to increasing the vulnerability of women. In a recent incident (14 February 2021), the Higher Sharia Court Council in Gaza issued a judicial circular that violated women’s right to equality and non-discrimination through the imposition of new travel restrictions. In particular, Article 4 of the circular allowed male guardians (i.e., a close male relative, such as father, brother, or grandfather) to prohibit unmarried women from traveling if the travel is considered to cause “absolute harm”—a vague term that affords discretion to the male relative—or if they have a pending lawsuit against the woman in question—again, affording power to the male relative.
And while women play a pivotal role in driving community progress, they are still vastly underrepresented in public life and decision-making. Data by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics shows that the enrollment rate in higher education is 158 women per 100 men. However, no woman has ever served as university president, for example. Similarly, 91 percent of the leading positions in trade unions are held exclusively by men. In commerce, female representation is far from equal, with women representing only 11 percent of board members in Palestinian banks, while no woman has ever chaired a bank according to 2018 statistics.
Most recently, ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections to be held later this year, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree (Decree Law no. 1 of 2021) increasing the quota for women’s representation in the future parliament. Regrettably, the presidential decree did not set a fixed quota, meaning there may not necessarily be a significant shift in terms of parliamentary representation of women.
Meanwhile, Israel has and still continues to carry out its repressive measures against the Palestinian population, including women. Between October 2007 and March 2021, Israeli forces killed 464 Palestinian women in blatant violation of their right to life. Hundreds of Palestinian patients from the Gaza Strip did not receive adequate medical care due to the restrictions imposed by Israeli authorities as part of the closure policy, with 22 of these women dying. During Israeli military attacks on the Gaza Strip, 28,431 women were displaced after their houses were destroyed by Israeli airstrikes and another 1,593 women reported facing additional burdens after losing their spouses and primary breadwinners in the same circumstances.
During the Great March of Return (GMR) demonstrations between 30 March 2018 and 2 March 2021, Israel’s use of lethal and other excessive force against participants resulted in 871 injuries and two deaths among women participants. The following message is from May Abu Ruweida, 22, who lost her right eye to a gunshot wound while participating in the GMR demonstrations.
I call on women all over the world to carry on their heroic struggle against all forms of violence against women. Women have to be strong and prepare for the future with perseverance.
Abu Ruweida lives in al-Maghazi refugee camp in Middle Gaza and holds a diploma in secretarial medical skills. Abu Ruweida still feels the effects of the violence used against her, saying:
My entire life drastically changed after the injury that cost me my right eye. On 6 December 2019, I was shot with a plastic-coated bullet while protesting in the GMR demonstrations. The doctors had to remove my eye and replace it with a prosthetic one. My face hasn’t looked the same since, and I always feel excessively fatigued when I use my smart phone. Now that I can only see out of one eye, I feel anxious doing the simplest daily activities because the right side of my visual field is dark. I still feel the pain, and I hope this won’t worsen or affect my life in the future.
Al Mezan recalls that Abu Ruweida lost her eye while demanding the rights of Palestinians in Gaza within the context of largescale protests against Israel’s illegal closure. On International Women’s Day, Al Mezan honors all Palestinian women and girls struggling for their fundamental rights and gender equality in the context of Israel's occupation and apartheid regime, and challenging their role in a patriarchal society. Their sumud—resilience and steadfastness—stands as an example of female empowerment for all women and girls around the world.
Al Mezan also seizes the occasion to call on the Palestinian authorities to take swift and effective action to protect women’s rights by ending all forms of violence and discrimination against women, including women in political processes, and enabling women to access justice mechanisms. Accordingly, as the presidential and parliamentary elections approach, Al Mezan is launching a comprehensive monitoring campaign that will include an assessment of women's participation in the electoral process.
Lastly, while expressing concern over the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, Al Mezan calls on the international community to uphold its moral and legal obligations towards the Palestinian people, notably women and girls, by taking all necessary measures to end Israel’s illegal and unilateral closure of the Gaza Strip and to ensure accountability for all suspected violations of international law affecting Palestinian women and girls.