Palestinian Women Are Being Failed by Refuge and Shelter Services

by Arwa Aburawa
-U.K.-
When I first heard about the murder of Nancy Zaboun in Bethlehem on Monday, July 30, all I could think about was that another woman had been let down by the system. A weak and underfunded protection system, which fails to support Palestinian women dealing with domestic violence and abuse in the West Bank, makes women choose between living with their abuser and being trapped in a women’s shelter where there is limited education, freedom of movement, or prospects of a better future. And, as a woman of Palestinian heritage, Nancy Zaboun’s murder makes me angry. I am angry that more was not done to protect her from years of abuse and finally murder. I am angry that resources are so poor that women often choose to risk their lives rather than enter a shelter.

It also makes me ponder what my life would have been like if the Nakba* hadn’t expelled my family to the UK. What if I still lived in the West Bank and my friends, my sisters, had to deal with domestic abuse? What if they needed real protection? Would they have found the right places, the right people, and the right resources, or would they have had to pay the ultimate price like Nancy Zaboun?

This anger and fear of the unknown makes me want to write about Nancy and to ask the authorities to do better – much better – because the services they provide now, in a place that could have been my home, are simply not good enough. I am lucky to have the privileges of speaking out, of writing, and of saying that the very least that must come from Nancy Zaboun’s murder is that we acknowledge that current facilities are failing women.

Nancy Zaboun, a mother of three, had been dealing with a violent and abusive husband for ten years before she was murdered. Her husband beat her on several occasions. Although she complained, she would return to him once he signed an agreement never to hit her again. There would always be another incident. A couple of months before her murder, Nancy fled to her family, seeking refuge. Her father insisted she leave and take her children with her. Without other options, she placed her three children in the care of a charity while she secured a divorce from her husband.

After a divorce hearing, Nancy’s husband approached her in the market and stabbed her to death in broad daylight.
Following this incident of domestic violence – and another four across the Palestinian Territories – female activists marched through the streets of Bethlehem demanding justice for women. They wanted stricter laws to prevent domestic violence and more severe punishment for men who kill women. In Palestine, the law is not on the side of the victim when it comes to ‘honour killings.’ In cases where the murderer claims to be ‘safeguarding a family’s honour,’ prison sentences can be as short as six months. Women’s rights groups in the West Bank want this changed to life in prison.

However, what the women’s groups and activists fail to highlight is that a change in the law alone will not solve this problem. The Palestinian Authority does not have a separate budget for nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s) such as women’s groups. Many groups rely on foreign funding to establish and run domestic violence shelters. Consequently, there are inadequate shelter facilities and limited financial support available to Palestinian women dealing with domestic abuse and violence. This lack of support and facilities often forces the women into unsafe situations.

A 2009 study published by the Palestinian Women’s Information and Media Centre found that 67 percent of Palestinian women reported being subject to verbal violence on a regular basis. Seventy-one percent said they were subject to psychological violence, more than 50 percent said they had experienced physical violence, and 14.5 percent had suffered sexual violence.

Nancy Zaboun was under no illusions about the danger her husband posed. She simply did not have access to the facilities needed to keep her and her children safe. With financial and community support, she may have been able to escape her abusive husband. For years, however, Nancy’s financial situation meant she stayed with her husband and endured the beatings. As a young woman in the prime of her life, she may not have been able to imagine herself in a women’s shelter, dealing with the stigma and prejudice of being a ‘shelter girl.’ As a result, she decided to just protect her children and take her chances.

Samar Hazboun, a young photographer who spent three months in a women’s shelter in Palestine, documented the harsh nature of the institutions in a short documentary film called ‘Hush.’ In an interview for Muslimah Media Watch she told me, “It’s a tricky situation really because we do need women’s shelters, but we need a different approach to them. On one hand it’s a great thing because it offers protection to some of the women, but on the other hand the shelter does not have the proper means to provide the education, therapy and support these women need,” Hazboun explains. “The whole system needs to be looked into and radical changes implemented … I also think that the main problem lies not in the shelter but in the lack of support from the Palestinian authority.”

‘Hush’ highlights the stories of women in the shelter and the circumstances which led them to seek refuge. It explores the isolating experience of living in a shelter, and the lack of resources which leaves many victims without sufficient psychological support to help them deal with abuse. The documentary gives Palestinians an insight into the reality of life in the shelters and the community.

“The women inside the shelter need to interact more with the outside world and the outside world needs to know that these women are equal human beings and not just ‘shelter girls’ or bad people,” Hazboun adds. “What struck me the most during the making of ‘Hush’ was the fact that people think that the women inside the shelter are prostitutes or have committed ‘disrespectful crimes.’ I heard a lot of rumours about the shelter and it made me sad to see how people make these women’s lives even harder than they already are.”

Palestinian women are discouraged from raising the issue of domestic violence publicly and are seldom granted a sympathetic ear when they do speak out. But the harsh reality of life in the shelters, due to underfunding and lack of government support, is also a part of that unforgiving discourse that says women are to blame and undeserving of help. While it is great to see women’s organisations taking a more public stance against domestic violence in the West Bank, the rarity of public outcry is disheartening.

What are organisations doing to remove the public stigma of seeking support and to pressure the government to improve the quality of services for abuse victims? What are women doing to challenge the public culture that casually accepts a husband’s right to beat his wife? Until now, not very much.

Obviously, Nancy Zaboun’s husband was the perpetrator in this case. He beat Nancy, and when she took the children away and asked for a divorce, he killed her. This, however, does not change the fact that the Palestinian government, with its underfunded and poorly supported women’s protection services, is also failing victims of domestic violence. The nonchalant and flippant attitude toward violence against women, as seen on TV and in reality, also needs to be tackled and changed. If Palestinian women living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as those in the diaspora, want to be proud of their nation, then we need to not only ask for change, but to demand it.

According to a Palestinian human rights organisation, 29 women in the West Bank were killed by a relative between 2007 and 2010. In Jan. 2011, the Palestinian Authority passed a National Strategy to Combat Violence against Women 2011 to 2019. The strategic plan aims to end violence against women by “promoting the principle of the rule of law based on women’s rights and improving institutional mechanisms in Palestinian society in order to protect and support abused women to live in a society free from all forms of discrimination based on equality, dignity, and respect for human rights.”
*Nakba refers to the 1948 Palestinian exodus.

About the Author: Arwa Aburawa is a freelance journalist based in the UK with an interest in the environment, the Middle East, Islam and various social issues. Her work has been published at The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Make/Shift, Electronic Intifada, Muslimah Media Watch, SISTERS and The Majalla amongst many others. Arwa is also an editor at GreenProphet.com which is the leading news sites on environmental issues in the Middle East. She graduated in Modern History and Politics and later specialized in International Journalism. You can see more of her work at arwafreelance.com.

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