“If beaten women remain silent, they would endure more violence.”
Mona Al-Najmi, 34, is divorced and lives with her three children in the Maghazi Refugee Camp in central Gaza. The camp area is densely populated and lacks adequate infrastructure while its inhabitants face poverty and high unemployment rates. When she was 13 years old, Mona had an eye injury while playing with her sister. Since then, she has suffered from a vision impairment in her left eye and needed constant medication to relieve the pain.
“My husband constantly beat me. So much so that sometimes I had to be hospitalized,” says Mona. “After nine years of insults and beatings, I decided to get a divorce. I was suffering from severe psychological stress. Not because of my decision to divorce, but because my family wanted me to endure this abusive marriage. Despite their insistence, I got divorced in 2014.”
In order to keep her children, Mona had to agree to her husband’s conditions of giving up all her legal rights, including alimony. Now, she has to provide for herself and her three children on her own.
After divorce, Mona’s difficult economic situation got worse. She was unable to find a job to cover her family’s basic needs. “I used to go the Labour Office to sign up for job opportunities, sometimes as a cleaner,” says Mona. “I also used to look online for jobs, but I only found a job as a janitor for four months.”
Unemployed, Mona relies on a cash transfer she receives every four months from the Ministry of Social Development. But this hardly covers her family’s basic needs, let alone her eye medication.
“I was 13 years old when my sister by mistake hit me with a stick on my eye while playing. My parents did not seek medical treatment for my eye on the same day. Two days later when they finally took me to the hospital, the doctor did an emergency operation because my eye had been bleeding on the inside. I had two more operations after that, but none managed to save my eye. I partially lost vision in my left eye. Since then, I have constantly needed medication to relieve my eye pain,” says Mona.
Because of her health and economic condition and the difficult relationship with her family, Mona suffers from isolation, depression and severe anxiety.
“I am very scared. I have nightmares that my family one day will take my children away from me and send them to their father. I do not complain about my living conditions for fear that they would send my children to their father because I cannot provide for them.”
Mona’s already difficult situation worsened with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown and quarantine measures in Gaza.
“During lockdown, I was suffering from excruciating pain. I could not go to the hospital or see a doctor. I was not able to buy my medication because pharmacies were closed, and I did not have money anyway. When I was finally able to leave home, I went directly to the Red Crescent. I needed to find someone who could help me and alleviate my anxiety,” says Mona.
“COVID-19 and the measures to contain it in Gaza have dramatically worsened the psychosocial and economic conditions of vulnerable women, particularly those with pre-existing health problems. Many of them felt isolated, with little access to help and support,” said Ms. Maryse Guimond, UN Women Special Representative in Palestine. “To effectively respond to the needs of all Palestinians, we need put the particular needs of vulnerable women at the heart of our response to the pandemic and recovery from it.”
In partnership with the Adwar Foundation for Social Change and UN Women, and with generous support from the Government of Japan, the Red Crescent in Gaza runs the project “Protection of Women and Girls Survivors or at Risk of Violence during COVID 19 in the Gaza Strip”.
“We try to reach out to vulnerable women who have been badly impacted by the pandemic, including women survivors of violence and women with disabilities and help them with their most immediate needs, such as food and medicines,” says Sahar AlKawasmeh, Director of Adwar Foundation. “We also offer them cash assistance to alleviate their psychological and financial pressures and help them cope better with the current situation in Gaza.”
Mona was one of the around 1,000 women who have been able to benefit from the project’s various support interventions, including group psychosocial support. These sessions help vulnerable women release pressure and anxiety, talk about their problems and increase their self-confidence. At the centre, Mona also learnt about her rights, including her right to medical treatment as well as her legal rights in the event that her children were taken from her.
"I did not know that there were so many associations that could help us and listen to us. I tell women who have been beaten that they should talk about it and not be afraid of society, because if they remain silent, they would endure more violence,” says Mona.
“We have to challenge the painful reality, make our voices heard in society and demand our right to live in safety and peace. We have to insist on changing our lives for the better even if we do not have our family’s support. I know that my family is not always right. So, I am doing what makes me and my children happy, and this gives me the energy and strength to face life’s hardships.”
In September 2020, Mona received six-month cash assistance, so she has been able to meet her family’s daily needs. Her case has now been referred to other associations so she could benefit from individual psychosocial support sessions as well as legal and economic support.
During individual psychosocial sessions, vulnerable women and girls receive help from professionals to release stress and deal with the trauma and violence they have been subjected to. They have also access to legal awareness sessions, so they know how to seek legal protection. These sessions are also paired with vocational training to help them earn a living and become self-sufficient.
"I was very excited to attend these sessions and to know that there are people who can listen to me, understand and support me,” says Mona, referring to the psychosocial sessions. “I now realize my importance, love myself and know how to release my stress and solve my problems. I have also learnt how to deal with my children, accept their behaviour and feelings and help them."