AL-BUREIJ REFUGEE CAMP — Sameera, sister to eight girls and mother to three daughters, suffered from domestic violence for years. Her husband, Adel, accused her of having a genetic defect since she had not given birth to a boy, and he routinely beat and neglected her and their daughters.
Adel’s violent temper flared after the birth of their second daughter, while the family was living in dire circumstances in the midst of Al-Bureij Refugee Camp. He accused his wife of depriving him of an heir who would carry his name. He claimed she was incapable of bearing boys, “just like her mother who gave birth to eight girls.” Since there are more boys than girls on his family’s side, it seemed clear to him that she was at fault. As violence against Sameera became almost a daily routine, she grew resigned to her fate.
But thanks to the Al-Bureij Women’s Centre, supported by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, life has changed for both Sameera and Adel. Health and social workers from the centre established contact with Sameera following the birth of her third daughter. They found her physically weak and emotionally desperate. They insisted on her receiving post-partum services.
Sameera’s initial visits to the centre were veiled in secrecy – she was afraid of being assaulted if her husband found out about them. Staff at the centre provided Sameera with psychosocial counselling and medical support to nurture her back to health. She also learned about reproductive health and rights and how to care for her daughters.
Counsellors in the centre’s Male Intervention Unit succeeded in getting Adel involved in the ‘one-on-one’ programme and, later, in group counselling. He began to change his behaviour towards his wife and daughters, especially when he learned that a mother’s genes do not determine her child’s sex. On the contrary, the father’s do.
Sameera is now a regular client at the centre, and she no longer has to keep her visits secret. With her husband’s support she is benefiting from a range of services that the centre provides. Adel sounds like a changed man: “Every time when my wife is back from the centre, I see how satisfied and relaxed she is. The centre provides a very supportive and caring setting.”
The Al-Bureij Women’s Health Centre was established by the Culture and Free Thought Association in 1995. It provides a wide array of services including ante-and post-natal care, family planning, legal and psychosocial counselling, health education, physiotherapy, exercise classes and lab services. It offers specialized services for nominal fees, and organizes health fairs to provide free services for impoverished or marginalized families and individuals. “It responds to a real need for the community,” said Fatima Masalha, a journalist from Gaza and a client at the centre.
Sameera and Adel believe that the centre helped change their lives and could help others too. They are encouraging other couples in their community to take advantage of services at the centre as well, and urge them to become more informed about their reproductive health and rights, instead of learning about these issues through hearsay. They have also referred a number of victims of domestic violence, which is an all-too common response to the pressures of life in a refugee camp, to the centre.
Sameera has enrolled in the centre’s family planning programme because she has become convinced of its importance, especially given her family’s dire social and economic situation. But in Palestinian society, family planning is still a much-debated issue. Traditionally, preference for baby boys has been a motive to have more children. Families tend to be large – more than five children on average. This puts women with limited access to obstetric care at risk. In the Occupied Palestinian Territory, a mother dies for every thousand births, and her risk of dying or becoming disabled is multiplied with each pregnancy. Between the social pressure to have large families and the lack of quality health care, women’s reproductive health and rights are often shortchanged.
Firyal Thabet, the Director of the Al-Bureij Women’s Health Centre defends these rights of women, “We believe that all women have the right to informed decision-making in issues affecting their lives. Making the decision in reproductive issues is a joint right and responsibility of the couple and should not be limited to any one of them or imposed by others.”
In the past decade, UNFPA has supported a number of initiatives in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to empower women and to raise their awareness of their reproductive health and rights, including the right to be free from violence. The Al-Bureij centre is one of three initiatives fully supported by UNFPA. The two other projects are in Jabalia Refugee Camp, in the northern Gaza Strip, and Hebron City in the southern region of the West Bank. These areas are among the hardest hit by the ongoing crisis, soaring unemployment rates and extreme poverty.
Limited access to reproductive health care and violence against women both stand in the way of gender equality, which is a pillar of social and economic progress. Promoting gender equality and empowering women comprise one of the eight Millennium Development Goals, which serve as an internationally endorsed roadmap for halving poverty and improving lives by the year 2015.
Reaching the goal of gender equality will require the involvement of men. UNFPA’s work in the field shows that male leaders, when presented with relevant data, can become valuable allies in addressing reproductive health issues, from maternal mortality to violence against women. Many UNFPA programmes seek to increase men’s sense of ownership over new initiatives that promote gender equity, equality and women’s empowerment. Many, like those that Adel was involved in, aim to increase men’s comfort with seeing themselves as responsible, caring and non-violent partners.