Women of Gaza: How education is seen as a lifeline for many

Paddy Dowling

The Independent  /  July 29, 2023

Women in the Gaza Strip continue to face exclusion but one university scholarship scheme is providing a lifeline.

For generations, the women of Gaza have been overshadowed by men. Their lives were predetermined; forced to marry as young as 13 years old and accept a life of domestic servitude. So what has changed?

Aya Besaiso, 24, from Gaza City, has been in full time employment as a consultant ever since graduating

Since 2007, the modern-day blockade of the Gaza Strip, enforced by Israel, has fueled one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, at nearly 50 per cent. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) have also reported that 81.5 per cent of the population now live below the poverty line, with nearly 700,000 in abject poverty.

Tala, 17, says, ‘For most woman the daily battle is chipping away at trying to change the perspective of families towards more inclusivity for women’

Abeer Al Yazji, 35, a business graduate who was previously part of the Fullbright student program, explains: “Women in Gaza are being left behind.

“Traditionally, women never challenge; parents, the community, and the prevailing cultural norms in Palestinian society. Your life after school is always set in stone”.

She continues, “Families with limited resources, continue to educate their sons instead of their daughters. A university education remains the only lifeline for women in Gaza.”

On the enclave’s northern borders in Beit Lahiya, Fedaa Ali, 26, one of 14 children, was told by her father, “There is simply not enough money to send you to university. Your brothers are the priority”.

Fedaa says, ‘Communities in rural areas remain deeply conservative and as a result more adolescent girls in my neighbourhood marry earlier, than for example in Gaza City’

Fedaa adds: “If you were not in education the pressures to marry are enormous.”

Nearby in Beit Hanoun, on the northeast edge of the Gaza Strip, Nadia, 23, says, “My life would be robbed from me if I did not challenge my father to allow me to continue my studies.”

Both Nadia and Fedaa successfully applied to Al- Fakhoora scholarship program which provides university bursaries to undergraduates from marginalised backgrounds in the Gaza Strip.

Nadia, 23, has a degree but still faces pressure to marry from her father. ‘My life would be robbed from me if I failed to find the strength and bravery to challenge my family,’ she says

One of Gaza’s considerable challenges is youth unemployment. Of the 292,000 graduates in the enclave, 68 per cent remain unemployed, with women disproportionately affected.

Jawaher al-Naemi, head of the program at Qatar Fund For Development, which funds the scheme, said, “It is critical to empower women to enable them to be active leaders in their communities.

Hiba Al Qedra, 25, teaches private lessons in maths and English to secondary school pupils since graduating

The program is committed to ensuring the provision of not only an education degree but a platform for women to pursue their dreams and contribute to the economic growth and development of their nations.”

The program provides comprehensive psychosocial support, advanced English language, computer skills, interview techniques, and organized internships in the private sector.

Hiba Balawi, 32, says she was exploited in the private sector ‘but my husband gave me the strength to leave and develop myself and my career’

Gaza’s ungoverned and male-dominated private sector has come under intense scrutiny over the exploitation of graduates, with a focus on women being paid much less than their male counterparts. Some of the women we spoke to told us that shorter-term contracts are common, with little notice period, as well as, job ads often stipulating “no maternity pay” and asking for “preferably no single mothers”.

Nadia, who graduated with a degree in business administration, explains, “I was fortunate to find work in the private sector as a copywriter, however, because I am a woman, I am paid less.”

Bahia Sabbah, a 40-year-old mother of two, says, ‘early marriage remains a problem in Gaza and with so many marriages ending in divorce, it is important that women are educated and can financially support themselves and their children’

Research by PCBS indicates that female participation in the labour market, registered at 17 per cent in 2022, has flat-lined for a decade.

Whilst both private and government sectors continue to discriminate against women, the best opportunities for them by far, are emerging in the non-governmental sector (NGO). Several international NGOs operating in Gaza, specify that at least 50 per cent of the project staff must be women and preferably from marginalized backgrounds.

Dina Bdair, 22, missed a full scholarship opportunity in Turkey because the community would not support her father’s decision to allow his daughter to travel unaccompanied

Thomas White, head of UNRWA, Gaza’s second-largest employer, tells The Independent, “Nearly 60 per cent of our staff at the agency are women and many of those hold senior managerial positions.

“Women’s participation at the agency is absolutely not a box-ticking exercise. We are fortunate to be incredibly well served by strong, highly intellectual and skilled females who are there on their own merits.”

Saha al-Kurdi, 23, who graduated in 2020, says, ‘the community is very outspoken with their opinions on women studying and working rather than being at home and as you can see the best solution is for both parents to be earning and contributing’

Iman Tayeh, 24, graduated in 2019 and found employment in Gaza’s emerging freelance sector.

She says, “In addition to the opportunities for women in the charity sector, Gaza’s digital revolution is enabling women to work from home and support themselves and their families without having to challenge culture or the community. This for many is the preferred soft approach towards a sense of empowerment.”

Iman Tayeh, 24, and her mother Raeda, 48, say the past decade has seen significant progress for women

Academic programs are equipping women for the challenges that await and NGOs are providing better employment opportunities for women. However, those marginal gains, hard-fought by women in the enclave could be lost unless the rights of women are enshrined in law and enforced by government.

Women of Gaza are fighting conflict under occupation and a society, which possibly, will always favour men. However, despite the odds, they remain eternally optimistic that things will eventually improve.

Paddy Dowling is a humanitarian correspondent and photojournalist