It’s grim in Gaza and grimmest for women

March 18, 2017
Sarah Benton

Articles on women workers in Gaza, Al Jazeera and the NGO Gisha.

Ibrahim, 37, and her 15-year-old daughter take turns pounding hot iron with heavy hammers, Photo by Mersiha Gadzo/Al Jazeera

Gaza’s women of steel

Women in Gaza are stepping up as family breadwinners, breaking cultural norms as they strive to make ends meet.

By Mersiha Gadzo, Al Jazeera
 March 08, 2017

Gaza Strip – At 42 percent, Gaza has the world’s highest unemployment rate – and while the rate of women in the workforce is only 15 percent, compared to 71 percent of men, many of them are trying to close the gap.

More and more women are breaking societal norms and working in jobs that have been traditionally reserved for men as they step up to serve as their family’s breadwinners. Al Jazeera spoke with three women about how their non-traditional jobs have changed their lives.

Gaza’s female bus driver

The children first called her “Uncle Salwa”.

“The kids thought only men drive cars,” Salwa Srour told Al Jazeera. “I broke the traditions. I’m the first lady in the Gaza Strip that drives a bus.”

Srour sets out at 6:30 every morning in her 1989 Volkswagen minibus, circling around Gaza City to pick up each child and drive them to the kindergarten class that she opened in 2005 with her sister, Sajda.

Initially, they hired male bus drivers, but Srour decided to take over the job after hearing parents’ complaints about drivers being impatient with the children or showing up late.

Class starts from the moment the children enter the school bus, where they begin learning new words in English

“We would call him, but there would always be excuses. He would always say, ‘I’m on my way,’ but the kids would be waiting and there would still be no bus,” Srour explained.

When the parents started calling her to ask why their kids were not home yet, Srour decided to take matters into her own hands and drive the children to kindergarten herself.

Rebuilding Gaza

Srour has been driving children to school for five years now. Class starts from the moment they enter the school bus and begin learning new words in English. Stepping on to the bus, the children greet Srour with “Good morning” as they each pull out a shekel from their pocket.

“Zain, go back,” Srour tells a four-year-old in English, indicating the back of the bus.

“Go back! Go back!” the kids repeat in unison as Zain makes his way towards the back seat.

Srour has been passionate about driving since her high-school days, recalling with a laugh how she used to sneak out and drive her grandmother’s car around Gaza at the age of 16.

After graduating from high school, she immediately insisted on getting her driver’s licence, at a time when few women were doing so.

“It’s really weird for people to see a woman driver, but after hearing my story, they started to encourage me,” Srour said.

The fisherwoman of Gaza

“Every day you go out, you’re not sure if you’ll come back,” Madleen Kullab said as she looked out to the sea from Gaza’s port. “It’s a difficult situation. When we approach the fifth mile, we start getting shot at. There are a lot of risks, but I do it because I have to.”

It has been nearly a decade since 22-year-old Kullab [above, by Ezz Zanoun]]took over her father’s role as a fisherman and the family’s breadwinner, after her father was diagnosed with myeletis, an inflammation of the spinal cord, leaving him disabled.

Kullab and her two younger brothers set out early in the morning, between 3am and 5am, or at sunset to cast their nets. She typically catches sardines.

“You’ll catch whatever you’re meant to catch,” Kullab, Gaza’s only female fisher, told Al Jazeera.

The job mostly depends on luck, as Israel has restricted Gaza’s fishers to a six-nautical-mile limit – less than a third of the fishing area allocated under the Oslo agreements. There simply are not enough fish in the restricted area; the catch is often meagre, and Kullab sometimes goes for days without catching anything. For a better-quality haul, they would need to sail out at least 10 miles.

As she walks along the dock, tiny sardines litter the ground as fishermen sort their morning loads in crates. The harbour is full of boats resting under cloudy skies.

Gaza’s worsening economic situation has hit the fishing industry hard, with the number of working fishermen dropping from 10,000 in 2000 to 4,000 last year. Fishers typically live on loans for the whole year, including Kullab, who does not fish during winter. The sea is especially rough then and the waves can get too high for her modest wooden boat. Even when she does fish, her daily catch earns her only 10 shekels ($2.60).

‘I get shot at every time I go out [into the sea] … Anything is better than fishing, even if it’s just for 10 shekels.’
Madleen Kullab, fisherwoman

The business has become too deadly, she says, and she is looking for a way out, attending college in hopes of becoming a secretary.

“I get shot at every time I go out [into the sea] … Anything is better than fishing, even if it’s just for 10 shekels,” Kullab said, recalling the time she witnessed 17-year-old Mohammad Mansour Baker shot and killed while he was fishing with his brothers.

“There were more than ten boats. We were only three miles out when the Israeli ships started shooting without any reason, targeting us,” she said. “Mohammad was shot at the side of his stomach; the bullet came out from his back and he died on the spot.”

Gaza’s female blacksmith

Underneath a makeshift tent on a sandy street three kilometres from Gaza’s port, Ayesha Ibrahim, 37, and her 15-year-old daughter take turns pounding hot iron with heavy hammers. Another daughter pumps a bag that throws puffs of oxygen into the small fire, where they heat the rods.

This is how Ibrahim, Gaza’s only female blacksmith, helps provide for her seven children. For the past 20 years she and her husband have been collecting pieces of metal from the streets and from destroyed houses and shaping them into axes, knives, cooking grates, metal anchors and other items, which they sell at the market.

It takes about three days to make one item; shaping the iron with a heavy hammer requires time and patience. One piece usually sells for about six shekels ($1.60) at the market, and they earn 10 to 20 shekels a day.

Sparks fly as Ibrahim pounds the burning iron. Her hands are swollen and her back is in pain; it is a tough job, especially as she is eight months pregnant.

“The most difficult part is that we don’t have a place of our own to work. Everyone that passes by has to look,” Ibrahim said.

Her husband takes medication for his nerves after being injured one evening when a 150kg piece of iron fell on his hand.

“It was a terrible night. We couldn’t afford to call an ambulance; thankfully, a man from the street offered help and took him in his car,” Ibrahim said. “At the hospital, they told him to stay for the night; they were afraid his injury might get infected, but we had no money to pay for the overnight stay, so he came right back.”

It is a struggle every day to put food on the table. Although more than half of Gaza’s population relies on United Nations food aid, Ibrahim’s family does not qualify because they cannot prove they are refugees, she said.

Ibrahim, whose father was also a blacksmith, spent her childhood selling his items at the market. She got married when she was 15. Today, her family lives off loans, and their landlord allows them to stay in his apartment free of charge. Owning a space of their own remains a distant dream.

“Our conditions are very harsh, very tough – but I have no choice but to continue working for my children,” Ibrahim said. “I don’t want my children to be like me in any way and to work like I did when I was young. I want a better future for them.”

Abu Ahmed pulls lettuce from his rooftop aquaponic farm in the Daraj area of Gaza City. He uses this urban space to grow tomatoes, parsley, red cabbage and onions to feed his family. He belongs to  generations of farmers who tilled the land in a village now located in present-day Israel. Photo by Rebecca Collard. Shortage of fertile soil and frequent loss of crops to Israeli fire has turned many Palestinians in Gaza to rooftop and aquaponic production. Almost all workers in the vegetable market – and food industry as a whole – are men.

The Concrete Ceiling

Women in Gaza on the impact of the closure on women in the workforce. pdf file

By Gisha
March 2017

Gender equality was probably never foremost on the minds of those responsible for Israel’s policy toward Gaza residents. The permission given in late 2014, following Operation Protective Edge, for the marketing of products made in Gaza to the West Bank, as well as the sale of Gaza-grown eggplants, tomatoes and eventually textiles, furniture and scrap-metal in Israel, mostly benefitted the few in Gaza who could afford the considerable costs involved in transporting products.

The industrialists and traders who are able to take advantage of this change in Israel’s policy and whose activity provides employment to others in the Strip are wealthy, established businesspeople, and are typically men. While this does not negate the significant value in opening markets outside Gaza to these individuals or the positive impact their business activity has had on Gaza’s economy, the question remains: what about the thousands of people, including many women, who cannot afford the shipping costs and cannot benefit from the change in policy?

Israel purports to decide what is best for Gaza’s economy. The decision to allow the sale of goods from Gaza in Israel and the West Bank also dictates what goods can be marketed, positioning Israel as an agency implicit in designing and managing Gaza’s economy.

The Co-ordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) admitted that “manufacturing capacity, supply and demand in the relevant markets – both the originating market and the destination market” were some of the considerations guiding its decisions. In other words, COGAT claims that prior to deciding whether certain products may or may not be sold in the West Bank, they surveyed the markets in the West Bank, assessing the economic potential of certain products and the manufacturing capacity of manufacturers in the Strip.

If COGAT considers itself entitled to run Gaza’s economy – should it not consider the social impact of its policy as well?

The bar for taking advantage of the opportunity to market products in Israel and the West Bank remains too high. The conditions stipulated for the passage of goods through the crossings, the correlating costs and the requirement of physical presence in the West Bank so as to pay taxes for transactions, have all kept this possibility out of reach for many.

Women, who mostly work in civil society organizations, public service or small businesses, rarely meet the criteria set by Israel for permits to exit Gaza or transport products out of it. Only two percent of trader-permit holders are women (53 out of 2,438 permit holders, according to COGAT’s response (Hebrew) to a Freedom of Information Application, received October 2016).

Consequently, policy changes concerning movement of goods, such as types of produce approved for marketing, without substantial changes to movement of people, forsake a large portion of the job market, denying many, and women in particular, professional development opportunities.

A decade of closure, severe restrictions on access, and periodic military operations, have left their mark on Gaza’s job market. More than 70% of the population require humanitarian aid; 47% suffer from food insecurity. Unemployment rates have risen drastically in the last decade, currently standing at 34.4% among men and 65.3% among women, compared to 35.2% among women in 2005.

While the number of jobs available in Gaza has steadily and significantly dropped, the number of women able to work and looking for employment has increased dramatically – more than 200% (from 9.1% in 2005 to 21.7% in the second quarter of 2016).

The few available jobs are mostly offered to men. Before the closure was imposed, many men worked in Israel. Since Israel no longer allows labourers from Gaza to work within its borders, they are forced to find work inside the Strip, shrinking the pool of jobs available to women even further. This situation in which more and more educated women join the workforce and seek employment as the number of jobs decreases is particularly problematic given that many women have become the sole breadwinners for their families following the death, incapacitating injury or imprisonment of their spouses. As a result, increasing numbers of women have no choice but to enter the labour market, venturing into professional fields previously considered predominantly “masculine”, such as banking, investment and management.

Restrictions on movement affect all residents of Gaza – men, women and children, but their impact on women is particularly severe because of a systemic preference toward men. Women experience greater initial difficulty entering the job market and advancing within it. The women interviewed for this study explained that access restrictions prevent women from developing a competitive edge because they cannot leave Gaza to acquire crucial professional tools and skills that are unavailable in the Strip. ♦

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