Women of Gaza: Empowered and resilient
Photojournalist Paddy Dowling returned to Gaza to witness how women living in the war torn city are finding strength and position in society through the power of education
While the world watches the continued suffering of the 2 million Palestinian people, trapped, living in the thin ribbon of land running along the coast of the Mediterranean sea, and does little to intervene, the people of the Gaza Strip continue to be tormented by an Israeli-imposed siege that has lasted more than a decade.
To a backdrop of a shelled building, in the Beach Camp area of the city, fathers and sons shared their stories of struggle and defiance, as they sat perched on their fishing boats repairing nets. The bombed building behind, a stark reminder that Life in Gaza is truly difficult, you can’t plan when living in conflict, you just have to live one day at a time.
The building provides not only a profound moment to reflect on the courage and resilience of the men of the city, but for also the women, like Athar, 21. A day in 2014 changed her life forever after the Israel-Gaza conflict, known globally as Operation Protective Edge, saw around 2,300 Palestinians killed and 10,000 wounded. Her father among those who lost their lives.
Resilience requires an ability to see optimism whilst staring in the face of adversity, and for the Palestinian youth growing up with the daily threat of conflict the decision not to give up, to build on that resilience, can not be better illustrated than their desire and appetite for education.
Athar is a graduate in English literature from the Islamic University of Gaza and part of the Al Fakhoora, a programme of Education Above All Foundation (EAA) which works to enable the most marginalised to access higher education opportunities despite their surrounding circumstances. She says: “For me, education is like food or fuel, an energy that gives me power to keep going. Education perpetuates confidence to keep going and to keep getting good grades, it is my refuge and my salvation after each experience of conflict in Gaza.”
They place beneficiaries at the heart of their programming by tailoring each intervention to address the obstacles and challenges that they face within the economic, social and cultural context in which they live. Empowering youth to be engaged, productive, inspirational global citizens who can adapt and excel in their challenging environments.
Unemployment in Gaza continues to rise, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, unemployment in Gaza reached 52 per cent in 2018, an increase of almost 8 per cent since 2017 and of more than 20 per cent since Israel imposed the closure in 2007. Women’s unemployment in Gaza was 74.5 per cent in 2018, an increase of more than 5 per cent since the last quarter of 2017. The proportion of women in Gaza participating in the workforce in 2018 stood at 25.5 per cent.
Hani Shehada, head of the EAA/Al Fakhoora office in Gaza, says: “Women’s empowerment is a central part of our programme. Most women are poorer than most men, but in their academic achievement, they perform way better. Due to the deteriorating standard of living in Gaza, we witnessed that if families have limited resources, they use them to educate their sons instead of their daughters. This is based on a ‘cultural’ assumption that boys are more prone to take financial responsibility of their families than girls.
“However, our experience has shown us that empowering women through higher education has a greater effect on the economic conditions of their families than one might expect. We believe that empowering women means empowering communities.”
Recently Athar was granted rare permission to leave the strip to head to the Wise Summit in Doha, where she was given the chance to speak on a panel with other Al Fakhoora graduates. The big question is, what if all the women of Gaza were given the same global platform and given equal rights to opportunities and employment? Where could their thunderdome be? What could the potential look like?
Athar could not imagine a life without her father, but when one light went out in the city another came on brighter and stronger. As the world continues to watch from the sidelines, EAA and its Al Fakhoora programme are empowering the next generation.
What remains clear, is that, despite them living in one of the most neglected parts of the world, the strength, resilience and spirit of the women of Gaza cannot and will not be broken.