Gaza’s women and girls see no escape from violence

17-year-old Istabraq Baraka became pregnant shortly after her marriage in the Gaza Strip. Her husband killed her three months later.

“She died from the severe beatings that caused brain and lung hemorrhages and broken ribs,” said her mother Nazmiya.

The 53-year-old, who sits with her husband Suleiman in a garden in Abassan near the town of Khan Yunis in the south of the Palestinian Authority, speaks at lightning speed about the killing of one of her two daughters last year and the loss of an unborn grandson.

Istabraq’s father wipes away tears by wrapping the corner of a red and white keffiyeh around his head.

He laments the slow pace of the court process since his daughter’s husband turned himself in to the police shortly after the murder.

Palestinians Suleiman and Nazmiya Baraka hold a picture of their daughter Istabraq, who was killed by her husband in the Gaza Strip last year Photo: AFP / SAID KHATIB

“The perpetrator has admitted his act, a year and a month up to now and nothing has happened,” said the 70-year-old.

According to figures from the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling, a Palestinian civil society group, murders of women are on the rise in Gaza.

The organization registered six murders and suspected deaths related to domestic violence in 2019, a number that rose to 19 the following year.

UN Women said the situation worsened at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, resulting in “survivors of violence being locked in with their perpetrators”.

Ayah Alwakil, a lawyer with the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, said women may view violence at the hands of their husbands as normal behavior in Gaza’s patriarchal society, which has been controlled by the Islamist group Hamas since 2007.

“Some women don’t know their rights and others are afraid to go to court because of the lack of family support,” she added.

Suleiman and Nazmiya Baraka are walking in their garden Suleiman and Nazmiya Baraka are walking in their garden Photo: AFP / SAID KHATIB

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics said that 38 percent of women in Gaza faced physical or psychological violence at the hands of their husbands in 2019, but Alwakil estimated the true figure to be far higher.

Men convicted of murdering their wives can be imprisoned or face the death penalty. However, the sentence is reduced if they commit what is known as “honor killing,” where a loved one is murdered for allegedly bringing shame on the family.

UN Women says such “outdated and discriminatory laws” impede justice.

In addition, those who seek to escape domestic violence risk losing their children.

More than a year after his daughter's murder, Suleiman Baraka is calling for expedited justice in femicide cases More than a year after his daughter’s murder, Suleiman Baraka is calling for expedited justice in femicide cases Photo: AFP / SAID KHATIB

When a woman divorces, custody passes to the ex-husband when a daughter turns 11 or a son turns nine.

Noha Khaziq, 31, stayed with her abusive husband because they had four children.

He killed her in February.

“Her husband tied her up and left her at home so she couldn’t escape and get out. When he came back, she was dead,” says her brother Abdelaziz, who shares his sister’s green eyes.

“We are pleased with the husband’s death sentence five months after the heinous crime, but we call for the sentence to be carried out quickly,” said the 28-year-old.

The Khaziq family have not seen Noha’s children since her murder because custody was awarded to their father’s relatives.

Fifteen years after the Israeli-led blockade of Gaza began, it is almost impossible for women fleeing the violence to leave the Palestinian enclave.

In an area with a population of 2.3 million, around 40 women live in just two specialized women’s shelters.

When AFP visited one of them, a woman with bruises on one side of her face was sitting in a corner. She was about to return to her husband rather than risk losing access to their children.

“The law is not always on the side of women in Gaza,” said Aziza Elkahlout, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Social Development, which runs one of the shelters.

“We considered opening the safe house because of the injustice women face,” she added, blaming the Israeli blockade for the dire living conditions in Gaza.

But such reasoning is insufficient for Suleiman Baraka, who says the authorities are partly responsible for his daughter’s murder.

“The government helps the perpetrator because they don’t make immediate decisions,” Istabraq’s father said.

Every time he reaches for his phone, he is reminded of his daughter, whose screen shows a photo of him with his two girls.

More than a year after Istabraq’s assassination, he warned that delays in enforcing justice only “encourage criminals”.

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