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Few legal options for abused Palestinian women, say activists

Palestinian women can be murdered for having sex before or outside marriage under the guise of 'family honour'.
(Tom Spender/IRIN)

Palestinian female victims of domestic violence have little chance of escaping their situation or bringing the perpetrators to justice as they face a legal system stacked in favour of the accused and a prevailing attitude that places blame on the victim, women's rights experts said.

Moreover, many women who have been raped are then killed by family members in "honour killings" for having brought shame to their family.

"Very seldom are the killers arrested or charged," and when they are, the maximum sentence that can be imposed is six months, said Masshoor Basisy, general director of planning at the Palestinian Authority (PA) Ministry for Women's Affairs.

"Violence against women is regarded as a taboo subject in our patriarchal society and with the problems associated with the occupation… in the [Palestinian] territories it has not been addressed adequately," Dima Nashashibi, deputy director of the Women's Centre for Legal Advice and Counselling (WCLAC) in Ramallah, told IRIN.


Photo: UNICEF-oPt
Palestinian women in violent or life-threatening marriages have two legal options available to them: pressing charges for spousal abuse or initiating a divorce on the basis of physical harm - according to HRW

HRW report

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released last year said: "Palestinian women in violent or life-threatening marriages have two legal options available to them: pressing charges for spousal abuse or initiating a divorce on the basis of physical harm."

The report, entitled A Question of Security: Violence against Palestinian Women and Girls, said that to pursue either of these two legal options, women required evidence of extreme violence, and a high evidentiary burden was placed on the victim.

Furthermore, "neither the Jordanian nor the Egyptian penal codes in force in the West Bank and Gaza respectively recognise sexual violence committed within marriage," HRW said.

Under existing family status laws in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt), the report added, Palestinian women need to provide two eye-witnesses, who are not relatives, if they wish to initiate a divorce on the grounds of spousal abuse.

Mandatory charges are only pressed if the victim is hospitalised for a period of between 10 and 20 days. A judge can dismiss the case as a "minor offence" at his discretion if the hospital stay is under that period, said HRW.

Compounding the problem is the lack of medical professionals or Health Ministry staff who have specialised training in dealing with female victims of violence, preserving evidence of abuse, and maintaining confidentiality.

"Legally the police are under no obligation to arrest or charge the perpetrators for less serious assaults," Basisy, from the Ministry for Women's Affairs, told IRIN

Domestic violence in OPT
West Bank Domestic Violence

• 24 percent of women were subjected to physical abuse

• 12 percent of women were subjected to sexual abuse.
Gaza Strip Domestic Violence

• 23 percent of women were subjected to physical abuse

• 10 percent of women were subjected to sexual abuse
Overall oPt

• Only 1.2 percent of women who had experienced domestic violence lodged a formal complaint against their husbands with the police

• Less than 1 percent of abused women sought counselling and protection at the police station
Source: Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 2006 [Survey done between December 2005 and January 2006, in 2,772 households in the West Bank and 1,440 in the Gaza Strip]

"Honour killings"

"Furthermore, over the last three to four decades fewer than 12 men have been jailed for `honour killings'. Our ministry has proposed changes to the penal code on various occasions but these were rejected by the Supreme Judicial Council," said Basisy, referring to a Palestinian office which approves legislation before it is passed on to the Palestinian Legislative Council.

According to professional estimates, there have been 51 "honour killings" in the oPt in the last three years, with 12 killed so far in 2007. Some advocates say the true numbers are much higher as few women bother to report the attacks due to the difficulty of laying charges and the "shame" involved. (See box).

However, progress has been made at the education level through a number of domestic violence workshops held by the WCLAC for West Bank police, Nashashibi said.

While initially many policemen were not aware of the issue, she said, after completing the course some had intervened in cases and brought battered women to the refuge themselves.

Obstacles

However, women's status within society still affects their ability to break free from an abusive home.

"Obstacles include women being unable to support themselves should they leave their husbands, with only 12 percent of Palestinian women working outside of the home," said Nashashibi.

"They will probably also lose custody of their children and the support of their families as the courts tend to favour the fathers in custody battles," she added.

In a move to offer abused women safety, the PA's Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Women's Affairs, in conjunction with WCLAC, have established three shelters for battered women in Nablus, Jericho and Bethlehem in the West Bank. Together they accommodate 50 women for a month each.

"We provide legal advice and counselling to the women," Nashashibi explained. "Depending on the circumstances of each case, women either return home after their stay, if the threat has subsided through counselling or family intervention, or are found emergency shelter in another refuge if this is too dangerous."

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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