Bethlehem, occupied West Bank – High fences surround a two story building with a vast yard, a court planted by lemon and mint sits at the centre of a couple of dozen rooms. Here, at Al Mehwar, some of the least fortunate Palestinian women share their stories of abuse.
Women staying in this Bethlehem safe house are given shelter, food, clothing, counselling and what they need most – hope and a chance to start over.
Raneem, which is not her real name, has been living in the safe house for nearly two years. The 38-year-old describes most of her life as though it was a journey through hell.
Raised in a broken family, she had to accept the first man who came to ask her hand in marriage, she said. At only 22 years of age, she was married, abused, beaten, had her husband take away her one-week-old baby and divorced. Shortly after her divorce, Raneem made another wrong turn. She married a much older man – her second husband, who was almost 40 years her elder.
Not only did he beat her constantly, broke most of her teeth and severely damaged her eye, he also brought his friends and acquaintances to rape her and watched, she said.
“I can’t begin to describe how it felt,” she said. “There was a tsunami in me that wanted to destroy everything.”
She endured living in this harsh cycle for seven years. But even after she escaped the “monster”, as she called her second husband, she didn’t find peace.
Her family shunned her; she was locked in a remote farmhouse for four years, until she finally managed to escape to the police who redirected her to the safe house.
In Al Mehwar, Raneem talked of her past life as if it was another’s. She was confident, unlike the women who first stepped into the doors of this place, she said.
“I’ve just recently started dressing like a lady,” she said with a smile on her face. Now, she wants to continue her education, start a small business and meet her child.
Although Raneem’s bitter experience may not be the norm, she is one of 37 per cent of Palestinian ever married women who have been exposed to one form or another of domestic violence – except in Raneem’s case: she was affected by all forms.
According to a 2011 report by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, two out of three women exposed to violence prefer silence and only 0.7 per cent head to women centres asking for help.
In the occupied Palestinian Territories, like many other places, many view domestic disputes as simply that – domestic.
Lots of incidents are swept under the mat between the West Bank and Gaza.
Obviously, only those who speak up or end up killed are those whose stories are heard … Since the beginning of this year, 12 women have been killed by family members.
The matrix of social norms and cultural traditions that consider the woman’s sexual freedom – or the mere doubt of a sexual relationship – a reason to bring “shame” to the family, is one of the most common justifications for the killing of women by family members.
That, and the complicated political and economic situation, along with the absence of a deterrent law are reasons behind the increase of women killing, according to many activists.
In the West Bank, the Jordanian penal code of 1960, which was amended many times in Jordan, still applies.
Although President Mahmoud Abbas issued a presidential decree in May, 2011 to annul the article that protects male assailant who commits so-called “honour killing” and allows for a lesser sentence, the law remains full of other articles that can be interpreted in favour of the assailants.
The abnormal legislative situation in the occupied Palestinian Territories, which left the Palestinian Legislative Council paralysed, allowed the president to pass more than 50 decree laws since 2007.
Human rights activists however argue that while draft laws concerning investment and taxes were endorsed, the law that helps protect women – who compensate half the Palestinian society and raise the other half – was not.