Gaza's women and girls see no escape from violence

Palestinians Suleiman and Nazmiya Baraka show a picture of their slain daughter Istabraq Baraka, who was killed by her husband. PHOTO: AFP

ABASSAN, TERRITOIRES PALESTINIENS (AFP) - Seventeen-year-old Istabraq Baraka fell pregnant soon after her wedding in the Gaza Strip.

Three months later, her husband killed her.

"She died from a severe beating, which caused bleeding in the brain and lungs, and broken ribs," said her mother Nazmiya.

Sitting with her husband Suleiman in a garden in Abassan, near the city of Khan Yunis in the south of the Palestinian territory, the 53-year-old talks at lightning speed about last year's killing of one of her two daughters, as well as the loss of an unborn grandchild.

Istabraq's father wipes tears away with the corner of a red-and-white keffiyeh wrapped around his head.

He laments the slow pace of legal proceedings since his daughter's husband handed himself in to the police shortly after the killing.

"The perpetrator admitted his crime, a year and a month until now and nothing's happened," said the 70-year-old.

Femicide is on the rise in Gaza, according to figures from the Women's Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling, a Palestinian civil society group.

The organisation registered six killings and suspicious deaths related to domestic violence in 2019, a figure which rose to 19 the following year.

United Nations Women said the situation worsened at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, which resulted in the "lockdown of survivors of violence with their abusers".

Ms Ayah Alwakil, a lawyer from the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, said women can consider violence from their husbands normal behaviour in Gaza's patriarchal society, which has been controlled by the Hamas Islamist group since 2007.

"Some women don't know their rights and some others are afraid of going to court, for lack of family support," she added.

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics said 38 per cent of women in Gaza faced physical or psychological violence from their husbands in 2019, but Ms Alwakil estimated the true figure to be far higher.

Men convicted of killing their wives can be jailed or face the death penalty.

But the sentence is reduced if they commit a so-called "honour killing", in which a relative is murdered because they are deemed to have brought shame to the family.

UN Women says such "outdated and discriminatory laws" impede justice.

Additionally, those seeking to escape domestic violence risk losing their children.

Palestinians Suleiman and Nazmiya Baraka in their home garden in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on June 27, 2022.PHOTO: AFP

If a wife obtains a divorce, custody passes to the former husband once a daughter turns 11 or a son reaches nine.

Ms 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 that she couldn't escape and get out. When he returned, she was dead," said her brother Abdelaziz, who shares his sister's green eyes.

"We feel satisfied with the death sentence ruling against the husband, five months after the heinous crime, but we demand the sentence be enforced quickly," said the 28-year-old.

The Khaziq family has not seen Noha's children since she was killed, because custody was granted to their father's relatives.

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

In a territory home to 2.3 million residents, around 40 women are staying in only two specialised refuges.

When AFP visited one of them, a woman with bruises covering one side of her face sat in a corner.

She was about to return to her husband, rather than risk losing access to her children.

"The law is not on women's side all the time in the Gaza Strip," said Ms Aziza Elkahlout, a spokesman for the social development ministry which runs one of the refuges.

"We thought of opening the safe house because of the injustice women are exposed to," she added, blaming the Israeli blockade for Gaza's dire living conditions.

But such reasoning is inadequate for Mr Suleiman Baraka, who says the authorities are partly responsible for his daughter's killing.

"The government helps the offender because it doesn't take any immediate decisions," said Istabraq's father.

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

More than a year since Istabraq was killed, he warned that delays in reaching justice only "encourage criminals".

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