Lebanon: Palestinian women denied rights even in camps
The report claims the services provided by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), marking its 60th anniversary this year, are insufficient to secure dignified living conditions for the roughly 21,000 residents living in the square kilometer on the outskirts of Beirut.
Female Palestinian refugees in particular bear the brunt of this, facing double discrimination: first for their refugee status and second for their position as women. "They have experienced refugee status differently than their male counterparts at all levels of the public sphere," the report reads, specifically referencing marginalization in the work force, education and political representation as well as the more private domestic sphere.
The study notes that Lebanon has signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) but has not committed itself to Article 16, which governs equitable marriage and family relations, which undermines the purpose of the treaty.
The monitoring of CEDAW for Palestinian refugee women is particularly difficult, with the number of different institutions accountable for their welfare, such as the Lebanese state, UNWRA and other civil societies complicating governance.
Lebanese law forbids Palestinians from working in 72 professions, including engineering, medicine, law and public-sector jobs. But Palestinian women face further obstacles in the workforce, such as discriminatory conditions favoring men who lack familial responsibility. These structural challenges have been codified to become standard practice in Lebanon.
Ninety-one percent of those interviewed by Women's Humanitarian Organization (WHO) for the study said they did not get to spend enough time with their children because of harsh working conditions, and a large majority said they felt unable to take any time off for maternity leave.
The study offers that inequality between the genders has also been exacerbated by the reinterpretation of the Koran on religious duties to excuse the marginalization and abuse of women. They put the rise in fundamentalism in the camps down to the disempowerment of women, who have been stripped of decision-making power.
Not only barred from participating in Lebanon's politics, refugee women in Burj al-Barajneh also find themselves excluded from the Popular Committee, the internal decision-making body responsible for electricity, water supply and the overall running of the over-crowded camp. But almost 40 percent of the women said that such formal decision-making was, culturally, a man's duty.
The holy book represents a crucial tool for education and the pursuit of equitable communities, yet the WHO find that it is now being used to restrict rather than maximize the contribution women make to society. The study particularly refers to long-standing cultural traditions that recognize domestic violence as a custom.
Ninety-three percent blamed the problem on the environment in the camp, which serves as an excuse for such destructive behavior.
The study showed that 93 percent of women ask permission from a male family member before leaving the house, as it would be haram to do otherwise, and 94 percent are asked to be back before dark.
Forty-one percent of women indicated that either they or women close to them are exposed to physical violence, including hitting, slapping or pushing. Given the widespread view that violence must remain private, the most common coping strategy for women facing abuse was to "keep silent and stay patient."
Twelve percent of the women were found to be illiterate, with half of those surveyed leaving education before entering high school. Only 11 percent had a bachelor's degree, and less than 1 percent obtained a master's degree.
Comments in the focus group with WHO underlined the sheer desperation women in the camp felt, with many saying they felt "buried alive" and often comparing their lives with animals, stating, "Dogs have better lives than we do."
Despite the camp's proximity to Beirut, 91 percent of women responded that they did not see themselves as part of Lebanese society, while 100 percent reported feeling isolated from the outside world.
Sixty-two percent said they would like to live outside the camp, in order to benefit from better living conditions, but 38 percent reported that they would not like to move, as they feel lost beyond its borders.
Eighty-six percent of the women said they lacked a sense of belonging within the camp, where most of them had spent their entire lives.
When asked what they would change if they could go back, one-third said they would have had fewer children, reasoning that it would be better to have fewer or no children because of all the unfairness of bringing children into such poor conditions.
The idea of the future offered little more optimism: 83 percent indicated that they expected the status of refugee women to remain "very bad," while almost all of the women said they no longer wanted to be refugees, and 79 percent said they would change everything about their lives.
Recent political developments in the region and the new policies of Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing cabinet suggest that the right of return for Palestinians is highly unlikely in the near future.
Yet at the same time President Michel Sleiman, addressing the UN General Assembly last week, rejected any form of settlement of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, saying that their position will be "neither compromised nor reversed."
The position of Palestinian refugees therefore remains as uncertain as it does unsettled, with no chance of naturalization in Lebanon and little chance of returning home.