Working women of Gaza: unsung heroes
By Khuloud Rabah Sulaiman,We Are Not Numbers
The declining economy and rise in poverty have made it more culturally acceptable for women in Gaza to join the workforce. The government in the Strip, which is a leading source of jobs with decent pay, is starved for funds—causing it to slash salaries by 40-50 percent. Exacerbating the impact, rival political party Fatah has cut the salaries of its own employees in Gaza by up to half. This drastically reduced income for so many men has led many Gaza women to seek work as well.
However, formal jobs with livable pay are scarce, which means even families with working women have trouble putting food on their tables. Nearly 80 percent of Gaza’s 2 million residents are dependent on UN assistance, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
That is why the Women’s Program Center in Rafah, in the far south of Gaza and the most impoverished area of the strip, focuses on support for women and their families, offering job training, financial aid and other support programs.
Falsteen Alabsie, 27, works as the center’s accountant but it can only pay her $300 a month. Her husband works for the UN refugee agency (UNRWA), which pays nearly $700 a month, a decent salary in Gaza. However, most of his salary must be used to repay the loans he took to purchase a plot of land on which they want to build a house. They have five children and live in a small apartment with just two bedrooms.
“I only buy specific kinds of fruit with low prices, such as oranges, bananas and apples, because we have so many other needs and my salary can hardly cover them,” Falsteen says.
Falsteen was surprised when Riyadh, 8, asked for money instead of the toy they planned to buy for his birthday.
“But we gave him 10 shekels and he quickly went to the grocery store and bought strawberries! He loves them the most and we are unable to buy them. Then, he distributed strawberries evenly to all of us,” she recalls.
Faten Nofel, a 13-year-old who participates in the center activities, doesn’t receive any pocket money like the other students, who use it for a snack at school.
“My dad, who works for the Palestinian Authority, receives only 1,000 shekels ($279) a month due to the cuts to salaries,” Faten explains “His salary is too small to cover our living costs and we have to pay tuition fees for my two brothers studying in university. We couldn’t afford to send my sister to university when she graduated high school last year. I wish I could grow up quickly to become a successful working woman and be able to help my dad with living costs.”
Somaya Abu Rezeq, whose father works as a teacher for UNRWA is in the same situation, settling for a sandwich and a piece of fruit at school.
“I always have either an apple or orange because they are the cheapest fruit in Gaza,” she says. “My dad can rarely bring us bananas, strawberries or mangoes and other expensive fruit.”
Somaya has 11 siblings, three of whom are studying in university.
Azhar Azoom belongs to one of the most vulnerable families in Rafah. Azhar is married to an unemployed man and has a daughter, Heba, 18. She says her husband refuses to even try to find any kind of work, but she cannot ask him for divorce, since cultural norms and current local law mean Heba would have to live with her father until she marries.
“I am forced to stay married to him just to stay with my only daughter,” she says, adding that, “to punish me, he will not let her live with me.”
Since her husband doesn’t work anymore, the family lives in an unfurnished house, owning only three blankets that don’t offer much warmth in the winter. Adding insult to injury, they have no water in the house, since they cannot pay the required connection fees. “I always ask my neighbors for some buckets of water. I feel embarrassed to ask, but I am forced to do it."
For three years, Azhar has embroidered clothes for the Women’s Programs Center, earning 100 shekels ($28) each month—not enough to pay for a weekly supply of food and their daughter’s transportation to college. Heba studies nursing and needs 300 shekels ($84) a month to travel back and forth, plus tuition and fees.
“I am in debt to my relatives and neighbors,” said Azhar. “I try to repay them after I receive cash aid from UNRWA or the Palestinian Authority, but then nothing remains for our basic needs and I am forced to borrow again. Sometimes, my daughter and I eat bread alone; we go to sleep starving.”
Another challenge they face are regular electricity blackouts: eight hours on, followed by eight hours off. Fortunately, Azhar received two portable solar lights from Rebuilding Alliance, helping her make handmade products to sell and Heba to do homework.
“They are a blessing; I am now able to embroider clothes and earn some money, and Heba can do her university tasks in the evening when there is no electricity,” she explained.
Azhar and Falasteen are examples of just two of the working women in Gaza; their families, and really all of Gaza, depend on them.