Page last updated at 11:29 GMT, Monday, 30 March 2009 12:29 UK

Gazan women face rise in abuse

Al-Atar women family members, Beit Lahia, Gaza
Insharar al-Atar (second left) says she forgives her husband for his aggression because she knows what he is going through

By Katya Adler
BBC News, Gaza

Amongst the rubble of the Zeitoun area of northern Gaza, a group of women have gathered. They are sitting in the dust where one of their houses once stood, headscarves on, their barefoot children clambering all over them.

This is no ordinary mothers' meeting. It has been organised by the Gaza Mental Health programme, which aims to help women here following Israel's military assault, as they try to bring up their families under Israel's continuing blockade.

The women talk openly about the misery they face - homelessness, the death of loved ones, whose photos they love to hand round, their children's trauma after the horrors they've seen.

Eman, victim of domestic violence (back view), Gaza
'Eman' (back view) says her husband grabs her by her hair before hitting her

But much harder for them discuss, the mental health workers say, is the abuse increasing numbers of Gaza women suffer at home.

The United Nations Development Fund for Women says there is anecdotal evidence that domestic violence - verbal, physical, sexual and psychological - has increased noticeably since Israel's recent bloody operation in Gaza and in general since Hamas took over sole control of the strip almost two years ago.

After that Israel and Egypt pretty much shut their borders with Gaza, severely limiting supplies and freedom of movement dramatically. Israel launched a number of punishing military campaigns.

Non-governmental organisations here are now trying to find ways to stop men in Gaza taking their frustration out on their families.

Conservative society

Walking through war-torn Beit Lahia in northern Gaza, we found three generations of women from the al-Atar family.

Insharar is one of five sisters. She told us that her husband had lost everything, his job and his house. She said he could hardly bear to talk to anyone and was taking out his frustration on her and the children.

"But we forgive him," she said. "We know what's happened here and what he's going through."

Here in Gaza men are supposed to be providers....The siege, the strikes, in one way or another they affect all households in Gaza - poverty, hunger, homelessness... Men are really frustrated
Abu Fahdi
Former abuser, now a counsellor

Gaza is a conservative, male-dominated, clan-based society.

But NGOs here are beginning to introduce violence awareness programmes including special sessions for men.

Abu Fahdi is a former abuser, turned counsellor.

"For us, the war really begins after the military war is over," he told me. "Here in Gaza men are supposed to be providers. The siege, the strikes, in one way or another they affect all households in Gaza - poverty, hunger, homelessness.

"Men are really frustrated. They sometimes take it out on their wives. She's in front of them every day."

But in Gaza, as in many eastern societies, there is nowhere for a woman to run.

There are no shelters here. Just clinics where women can get comfort, advice or anti-depressants - more often than not, without their husbands knowing.

Psychiatrist Suha Muusa, Gaza
Psychiatrist Suha Mousa says it is difficult for Gazan women to leave violent husbands

Psychiatrist Suha Mousa says those who want to help abused women have to work around social constraints.

It's hard to intervene in people's family lives, she says, explaining that if a husband divorces his wife or if she leaves him and returns home to her father's house, she could lose all access to her children.

'Grabbed by the hair'

That, 'Eman' told me, is why she stays with her abusive husband.

He has beaten her so badly she has problems with her eyes, her teeth and her shoulder.

She says he grabs her by her long hair and drags her around before hitting her. He is also violent with her three children, aged five, three and nine months. Baby Ahmad lies asleep in her arms as we sit talking in a small room at the women's clinic.

Jamila al-Shanti, Hamas MP, Gaza

From the moment of birth, a baby boy is celebrated, a baby girl is accepted

Jamila al-Shanti
Hamas MP

For Eman, the recent Israeli operation came as a relief.

Her husband became regularly violent after losing his job. During Israel's recent three week operation, she and her sons sought refuge in UN schools. Her husband stayed at home.

She said the boys wanted to stay at the UN even after Israel stopped bombing. They had food, which they don't always at home, she told me, and were far away from their violent father.

Naima al-Rawagh is the forthright Director of the Gaza Mental Health Programme.

She says the only way to combat domestic violence is through education. Her clinic offers (separate) lectures for young, unmarried men and women. Her psychologists and psychiatrist also tour Gaza, trying to inform women about their rights. Many are simply unaware, she says.

Naima also told us how important it is to work with clan leaders in Gaza. They are the ones who can really change attitudes, she says.

When I asked her how open she found them to her clinic's message, she smiled.

"Some, yes. Some turn their backs," she says. "We will never eradicate domestic violence completely, but we can make progress".

Politically Gaza is run by Islamist Hamas. Policemen are Hamas. Judges are Hamas. Politicians are Hamas. Is the movement doing anything to combat violence against women?

Fatally stabbed

Jamila al-Shanti is one of three female Hamas members of parliament in Gaza. I met her at a Hamas gathering to commemorate Nizar Rayyan, a leader of the group killed in an Israeli airstrike. She was sitting in the women's tent.

"Many people think Islam dictates that women should be at the bottom of the pile. But that is not Islam, that is the fault of bad traditions and bad habits.

"From the moment of birth, a baby boy is celebrated. A baby girl is accepted," she says.

"The Hamas movement is trying to change things. We have women everywhere - in the ministries, in education, in hospitals.

"Women face problems not just in the Muslim world but all over the world. I follow what is happening in Europe, in America. I don't see anywhere where women have all their rights. They don't have them here in Gaza. But we are trying. We are struggling."

Back among the rubble in northern Gaza, it's clear there's little ordinary people here can do to stop Israel's siege or strikes, or Hamas' rockets for that matter, but there is a slow, steady attempt to change attitudes towards women. It's urgently needed.

The day we arrived in Gaza, a young mother was stabbed to death by clan members after trouble with her husband.

Human rights groups say the law in Gaza deals with cases like this far too leniently. They're generally considered a family affair.

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