The Eastern Gaza Centre for Family Development is located in a small apartment in the east of Gaza city. The centre runs a host of activities for women and girls and is proving to be very popular. As I entered the place I could barely find a space to stand. The centre was packed with women of different ages who were participating in the various activities held at the center.
All the women were smiling and eager to talk about the impact the centre had had on their lives. They explained that coming to the centre gives them time for themselves as women, to talk and to share experiences. Moreover, the centre provides an opportunity to leave the house and experience a different environment.
Basma Hamid Rajab, "Um El A’bed", has been a volunteer at the center since it was first established in 2004. The 51-year-old mother of nine relishes the opportunities that the centre opens for her and other local women.
"I know the manager of the center, we are friends, and we decided to make something that could help women in my area," she describes when asked about the beginnings of the initiative. For Basma it was important to serve the women of her local community.
"It is a very closed and conservative area and women here are not educated." Basma explains. "Our main goal is help women as much as we can, and it was this wish that first inspired the idea of establishing this centre."
"We live in a male-dominated society where women and girls are restricted in many ways, for example, in continuing their education and making their own decisions. It was as a response to this that the centre emerged as a place that that can facilitate discussions on such sensitive issues and empower women to act to change them."
Basma’s own experiences had helped her realise how disempowering her own society could be to its women. "I lived for 18 years with my in-laws, I could not say a word, I could not make a decision of my own even to what is related to my own children," she recalls. "It was so painful, until one day I came into some inheritance from my family. This allowed us to build a small humble house. That moment was the moment of change. Since then I have I felt truly independent. I can raise my children the way I want, this means a lot to me."
The centre has profoundly changed Basma and given her the opportunity and freedom to develop skills and self-confidence. "My participation at the centre widens my knowledge, and enriches my ability," she explains. "I have became more confident, I can talk freely even on the most sensitive issues."
The centre has also bolstered Basma’s relationship with her own six daughters. "I can talk with my daughters and understand their needs."
It is the needs of all her children that have become acute since the start of the recent Israeli military operations in Gaza which began at the end of 2008. When we talked about the war on Gaza and how Basma, as a woman and as a mother, managed her life she said "before the war we were safe, and felt some security in our home, the children’s feelings of security derived from my own feelings as their mother, but when we as parents lost these feelings of security in front of our children, it was then that we exposed them to total fear"
Basma was one of the many who endured fear, displacement and chaos as a result of the Israeli operation. "We had to evacuate our house, specially when the Israeli tanks started to throw leaflets asking the people to leave their houses. I felt so scared, we took our clothes and some mattresses and joined my in-laws in the Zaytoun area. We thought that we would be safe, but we were not, no place was safe at that time."
In fact the family found themselves in the thick of danger. "A house close to my in-laws house was targeted with an F16 missile, my in-laws’ house was totally destroyed, the roof fell in on us. My kids were all injured but I could not see anything, there was no electricity. I will never forget these memories. I called out to my son Shadi who had burns on his face, and was bleeding from his head, I was asking him if he was alive or not. It was terrible to see my children all covered with blood."
Basma and her family are still in shock. "I can not believe that we are still alive," she says. "Days after this experience, my kids wake up screaming and crying, they have nightmares all the time"
The centre is running progammes to support Basma and other suffering similar difficulties. "The psycho-social support sessions held at the center helped me and many other mothers on how to cope ourselves and deal with our children’s trauma. The educational forums were a chance for us to exchange experiences, and to talk freely about our fears as mothers, and women"
As a mother in Gaza in Basma says, "The Palestinian mother is very strong, and courageous, though she has to endure and pass through many horrible experiences, but tries to keep her spirit up all the time. I am very proud of being a Palestinian mother in Gaza, our life in Gaza is not an ordinary one, it is not an easy job, but we will survive."
As a final thought Basma says, "I want to be free and safe, these are my two main wishes". Though she and her fellow women at the centre face an uncertain future and many hardships the centre at least help them cope and supports them in their efforts to improve their own and their children’s lives.
Najwa Sheikh Ahmed
Gaza, March 2009