The situation of Palestinian Women in Refugees camp

Following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, there ensued the first Arab-Israeli war, which saw the massive exodus of thousands of Palestinians who were either forcibly evicted or fled in fear of violence and war. These ‘refugees’ fled into neighbouring regions, 100, 000 finding their way into Lebanon. The United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East [UNRWA] was established to deal with the humanitarian and social problems of the new refugee population. In Lebanon, 12 official refugee camps were established, mainly on the peripheries of major cities like Beirut, Tyre and Tripoli. UNRWA was mandated to only deal with social services, health, and educational aspects of the refugee situation; its mandate specifically excludes any political representation or protection of the Palestinian refugee population. This makes the Palestinian refugees unique among other refugee populations – all covered by the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which guarantees political representation and protection. The Lebanese state, although accepting of a refugee population on its soil, still kept extremely tight security control on all the camps, subjecting Palestinians to harsh regulations, curfews, limitations on movement and employment, as well as denying them most social and civil rights. This situation changed dramatically with the arrival and stay of the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO]. The PLO was to act as a de facto state for the Palestinians in Lebanon, providing them with better education and health, setting up a cultural centre, improving the infrastructure of the camps, offering physical protection, as well as acting as an important employer for a population formerly denied all but menial labour in the Lebanese market. Although the arrival of the PLO alleviated the suffering caused by the Lebanese governments’ former restrictions, its presence in Lebanon was not without problems. Only five years after the PLO’s arrival, the Lebanese civil war broke out, inevitably dragging both the PLO and the Palestinian population into it. While fighting continued, an important watershed in the civil war was undoubtedly the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. This invasion saw the massive shelling of major Lebanese cities and Palestinian refugee camps, as well as the three-month siege of Beirut [and the camps therein] itself. In addition to massive infrastructural damage and thousands of civilian deaths, the major consequence of the Israeli invasion was the departure of the PLO from Lebanon, effectively ending the privileges that it had formerly provided, and leaving the civilian refugee population unprotected. It was following the departure of the PLO and the total Israeli takeover of Beirut, that the Sabra-Shatila camp massacres occurred, resulting in huge civilian casualties. Following this massacre, Israeli troops redeployed to south Lebanon, leaving the Palestinian camps in the hands of various Lebanese militias. While there was a lull in the fighting following the invasion, these militias nevertheless continued to harass and threaten the Palestinian camps. 1983 saw the massive incarceration of Palestinian men [ages 15-60], thus leaving women to head most of the camp families. Although most of these men were later released, the camps were subjected to an even worse trial with the beginning, in 1985, of what was to become the ‘war of the camps’. Amal, a Shi’ite Lebanese militia, placed the camps of Beirut and the south under complete siege four times [one month, 10 days, 45 days, 6 months] from 1985 - 1987. These sieges resulted in complete blockades of food and medical supplies, as well as denying people the right to leave/enter the camp; however, all of the sieges also witnessed heavy fighting between Amal and the Palestinians. The final Amal siege was lifted in 1987, but this did not put an end to Palestinian suffering. From 1987-1994, the camps were once again subjected to severe restrictions, the worst of which was the prohibition against men leaving the camps. After 1994, restrictions on movement out of the camps ended, however the Palestinians remain to this day with no civil and political rights in Lebanon. This effectively means that they have no right to work, to access Lebanese educational or health services, to own land or property, or even to move throughout the country easily. In addition to all of this, Lebanese regulations are neither fixed nor unchangeable [often changing within a matter of days], creating a permanent sense of insecurity and instability in people’s lives. While Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have to deal with local conflicts, they are also affected by wider regional agreements made by the PLO. The most important of these were the Oslo Accords of 1993, which determined that the refugees were a ‘final-status issue’ to be discussed only in 1996, thus sidelining the refugee issue altogether. The international community’s gaze and money were thus directed to the West Bank and Gaza, in the hopes of creating a viable Palestinian state there. The refugees waited with little if any support, 1996 coming and going with no resolution of their situation. The al-Aqsa intifada sealed the end of the Oslo Accords, and current negotiations [such as the Geneva Accord] seem to indicate that the PA and the international community are willing to trade the refugees’ right of return for meagre Israeli land ‘concessions’ in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Palestinian Refugee Women in Lebanon
Like women in other war and post-war contexts, Palestinian women in Lebanon were and continue to be faced with a whole array of complex problems. Foremost among these is the incredible responsibilities that were placed on women during the war. As men were fighting the war, women were left to deal with all problems of daily life – from raising their children and ensuring their security and survival, to finding money, dealing with injured family members, etc. In addition, women were the ones responsible for the humanitarian consequences of the war – nursing the wounded, taking care of displaced people, cooking for the fighters, donating blood, etc., which exacted a heavy psychological toll on them. The Palestinian experience from ’48 to the present resulted in the deaths of many men among the general population. Throughout the various displacements, wars and sieges, women found themselves alone, facing not just daily issues of survival, but also the loss of family members – particularly, sons and husbands. Thus women were left alone both during conflict and after, now finding themselves without even an official ‘government’ structure to support them. Years of struggling without any apparent end to their trials and suffering have created extreme feelings of sadness, isolation, loss of ambition and depression among most Palestinian women.

Women and Health
Following the initial exodus of 1948, Palestinians were sheltered in tents on extremely small areas of empty lands near major cities. Entire families were placed in single tents, creating overcrowded conditions that people had formerly not been exposed to. Most of the refugees lived off of UNRWA rations, leaving many children malnourished to various degrees. The environmental conditions of this period [5 years] during which people lived in tents, were extremely harsh – the winters were cold, the tents offering scant protection from the rains and mud flows; the summers were hot and humid, with inadequate water supplies. The exposure to these conditions – as well as the loss of an entire way of life in Palestine – created a very stressful situation, leading to many cases of rheumatism [due to dampness of homes], chronic and respiratory diseases, infections [due to overcrowding], as well as psychological problems. While the tents soon gave way to shabby concrete houses, most of the above-mentioned environmental problems persist to this day. In addition, health practices are still subject to the authority of the older generation [from Palestine]. These health practices are maintained so strongly most probably for reasons of identity assertion, however, they can have negative effects. For instance, older women often say that women should not wash while menstruating as this interferes with the body’s attempt to rid itself of blood, and open wounds are initially treated with coffee. It is important to keep in mind how strong the pressure of the older generation is in terms of passing on health practices such as these; younger women will often refuse to disobey their mothers’ suggestions, even if asked to do so by a doctor. In addition, the fact that the camps continue to be crowded, with extended families still living together post-war, makes it difficult – if not impossible – for younger women to escape the criticism and/or pressures of older family members. Overlaying these environmental problems and traditional practices, women were, of course, left with the scars of war. One of the major post-war consequences was the high loss of men. This, of course, left the population with an incredible population imbalance, with far more women than men. This has had one of two effects in the camps. Either women are unable to marry [a terrible situation for a woman to find herself in given the cultural context], or women will be pressured to marry very early. The reason for this second option is that given the loss of life during the war, there is an indirect pressure on women to have more children. Early on after the war, for example, hospital facilities in some camps were pressured not to provide contraceptives to women. Another major post-war consequence is sexually-transmitted diseases. As in most war contexts, Palestinian women were exposed, at various times, to rapes. This was particularly the case at times when camps were overrun [as in the siege and fall of Tall al-Za’atar camp] or when camps were sieged and only women were allowed to leave and enter to get foodstuffs [as in the war of the camps]. This obviously exposed women to the possibility of various STDs, as well as psychological problems. Given that many STDs have a long dormancy period, and that there are few opportunities to detect them, most women do not know if they are infected. This creates a high risk of transmission to the wider population in the camps.

Women and Education
After 1948, the primary focus of the Palestinian population in Lebanon was on education. Education was seen as a portable tool, as the only thing available to a refugee population, and as a means of regaining dignity and building for the future. This enthusiasm for education was given further impetus with the arrival of the PLO and the establishment of scholarship programs for the refugees. However, the prolonged periods of conflict in Lebanon caused major disruptions in the schooling system, forcing many people to drop out. Thus many people, including women, find themselves today with little or no education. In addition, much of the UNRWA school infrastructure was damaged during the wars, and many schools were never rebuilt, due to lack of funding, as well as massive population displacements. With reduced infrastructure at the end of the war, came also the reduction in UNRWA services in general, as well as the disappearance of PLO institutions. Further aggravating an already dire situation, was the fact that the international communities attention and funding were diverted to the Occupied Territories. All of this occurred within a post-war Lebanon that had a very weak economy. There were few work opportunities for women, many of whom were now heads of families and often found themselves without enough money. All of these post-war pressures lead to massive depression among women. The consequence of this has been that women have lost interest in their children’s schooling, often agreeing with the widely held view that there is no point in education if it does not increase chances for employment afterward [as it does not in Lebanon for Palestinians]. In addition, since many of these women never finished their schooling, they are often unable to help their children with homework, or may even feel ashamed that they do not know enough to help them. So, unlike before, when women always went to meetings with teachers and children were sent to school with neat and clean uniforms, it is now common to see that most children are left to their own devices when it comes to school. Palestinians that illegally entered Lebanon after 1948 were never registered with either UNRWA or the Lebanese authorities, thus leaving them with no official documentation. Children of Palestinian men that entered illegally, thus find themselves today with no official documentation, as UNRWA and the Lebanese authorities recognize decent only through the father. These children, consequently, are deprived of UNRWA education, as well as the option of going to Lebanese private schools.

Women and Psycho-social Issues
All of the above-mentioned situations and events have obviously negatively affected women’s psychology. It Arab society it is the mother’s role traditionally to bring up the children, to speak with them, etc. Women are thus entrusted with the passing on of identity and culture; this is particularly problematic for Palestinian women in Lebanon. They must explain to their children that they are refugees, that they neither belong to Lebanon nor are allowed to return to Palestine, etc., all the while trying to limit the expressions of hatred that their children voice. While this passing on of identity has always been women’s role, post-war they also found themselves taking on the responsibilities of men [finding money, working, etc.] which greatly increased their stress and accentuated their depression. There is little recourse available for women, with no counselling services for them. Their interactions with their children are thus often limited to screaming and scolding, with little time for real conversations. Children thus are becoming far more aggressive themselves. Those women that are married, often encounter different sorts of problems. Men are mostly unemployed, depressed and humiliated at not being able to fulfil their prescribed role as breadwinner in the family. In this general context of depression, if women approach men for help or money, the response is often more anger, screaming and sometimes violence. This unhealthy living environment only serves to further aggravate women’s stress and forces them to take on the responsibilities of men, even though their husbands are still alive. They have no option but to work, in addition to taking care of the children. Last but not least, all of this fighting occurs in front of children, who are necessarily affected by it. While women lost most opportunities for education due to the war, they found ways to work in the post-war context, many becoming house cleaners. With the massive influx of migrant labour into Lebanon and its acceptance of lower wages, Palestinian women lost access to even this source of menial labour. With the financial responsibilities most women are faced with today, this only worsened the weight of already onerous problems. One terrible consequence of the conjunction of heavy responsibilities and lack of work is that some women are now turning to prostitution as an alternate financial resource. People in the camps are loath to discuss this issue, and thus it often remains hidden. This leaves women at risk of many diseases, as there is no one and nowhere they can go to in order to learn how to protect and test themselves, or simply to talk about this issue. Traditionally, it is not accepted for women to go out and congregate together, in places such as cafes or clubs [however, it is permitted for all women to go on social visits to family, friends, etc.]. Consequently, there is nowhere in the camps for women to come together regularly, in order to talk, discuss common concerns and problems, etc. This problem has become particularly acute in recent times due to the changing demographics in the camps. The loss of men in the war served to cause a first imbalance in the ratio of men to women; however, today, high numbers of men have and continue to leave the country in search of work in the Gulf or Europe, leaving women behind. Thus, women of marriageable age find themselves in a unique situation: they are too old to go out freely as they could before, and because they are not married they do not enjoy the privileges accorded to married women in terms of freedom of movement, etc. They find themselves pressured by a society that is not used to such a high number of unmarried women, and often they feel forced to limit their movements, activities, social visits, etc. The war, with its sectarian divisions and physical dangers, served to reinforce separation between the Palestinian camps and the broader Lebanese community. In the post-war context this isolation continues. Women often don’t want to go out primarily because they feel unwelcomed in Lebanon. These feelings are generated from little things, such as Lebanese remarks about the Palestinian accent. In addition, the economic situation is dire, and it is very expensive to go far out of the camp – most people just cannot afford to travel around or just go into city centres. Furthermore, Palestinians in Lebanon have travel documents – not full passports – making it very difficult for them to travel outside of Lebanon. All of this makes it difficult for women to know what is going on in the outside world, especially about women’s issues. Thus it becomes even harder for women to develop their ideas and ways of thinking, and especially articulate their rights are women. While the war served to empower women in certain senses, by allowing them to move, to work, to take on more responsibilities usually assigned to men, etc., this ‘empowerment’ happened in a haphazard way. Women were given many rights overnight, because necessity dictated that they should. During the war, there was some institutional support for women, mainly in the form of the PLO Women’s Union. However, after the war ended, there was less support to help women in their new roles of empowerment, even though it was a time where they would have needed added support from the broader community. Women continue to take on the responsibilities of this empowerment with little support. In addition to the heavy burden of new responsibilities, one often hears from women, as well as others in the camps, that they preferred the war to the current situation. While this may at first seem like an extraordinary and even strange comment, it is easy to see where it stems from. During the war, as a consequence of the violence, much international attention was focused on the camps, channelling much assistance to help people. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the isolation and threats during the war fomented a strong – and no longer present – feeling of community solidarity within the camps; this was an enormous source of help, hope and resilience for women in particular. It is important to contextualize such comments, particularly in places that have had long histories of war, where violence, in many ways, forms a normal fabric of everyday social life. If people say they preferred the war, it is because of the feelings and help that the context of war generated, and which are no longer present now – not because they truly prefer war to a situation of non-war (as one cannot describe the current Palestinian situation in Lebanon as one of ‘peace’).

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, it is important for the international community to focus greater attention and funding on the refugees, especially in Lebanon. This greater international involvement could come in the form of increased educational and health initiatives, based on locally identified priorities and needs. It is paramount that while they are made to wait, the Palestinian refugees are given the tools and opportunities to create better lives for themselves and their children. More specifically, international organizations should focus attention on local NGOs, all of which are bearing the burden of problems usually tackled by national governments. Local NGOs have identified areas of intervention not fully covered by UNRWA, such as pre-school education, health education, remedial education and support, literacy programs, women’s education and counselling, aged-care programs, youth programs and activities, etc. Supporting these local initiatives is the most direct way of impacting on the well being of the Palestinian refugees.

On a broader level, it is crucial that international interventions also recognize that Palestinian refugees have political rights, as well as social concerns. One of these political rights, enshrined in the UN Charter of Human Rights, is the right of return. Palestinian refugees hold this right to be an individual right as well as a collective one, and they maintain their further right to choose the most favourable option for their future