15-year-old marathon runner challenges stereotypes in Gaza

27 April 2016
15-year-old Palestine refugee Inas Nofal is preparing for her daily four-hour training session in Al Maghazi camp, central Gaza. © 2016 UNRWA Photo by Tamer Hamam

“If you have a dream, don’t be afraid to follow it”

15-year-old Palestine refugee Inas Nofal, from Al Maghazi camp in central Gaza, dreams about becoming a famous marathon runner. For more than nine months she has trained every day for four hours, together with her sports teacher Sami Natil, in an empty lot located inside the camp.

“Girls can be talented sports people, and they are able to compete,” Inas said. “Gaza is not only about conflict and damage, we can also be successful. I do sports because I want to be healthy, and because as a girl I want to prove that I can.”

Inas participated in a marathon for the first time in Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza in November 2015, where she won the first prize. After this success, she became more motivated and trained harder, particularly because she wanted to run the fourth annual Palestine Marathon held in Bethlehem in the West Bank, in early April 2016.  Yet Inas, along with many other Palestinians from Gaza who dreamt of participating, did not receive a permit from the Israeli authorities to exit the Gaza Strip for the event. 

“I was so excited when I got the invitation for the Palestine marathon, and when I didn’t get the permit, I felt disappointment,” Inas said.

The blockade on Gaza, which enters its tenth year in June 2016, imposes severe restrictions on the movements of goods and people to and from the small coastal strip. It is not the only obstacle Inas has faced, however. Due to conservative values and gender stereotypes prevailing in Gaza, Inas felt a large part of the community did not agree to a girl publicly engaging in physical activities when she commenced her running. Over time, she feels that this has changed for as people have become used to her activities. These days, she is regularly joined by 15 other girls who also wish to participate in marathons.

“Changing thoughts and prejudices is not something very easy in Gaza, but it is not impossible,” the teenager commented. 

Inas has the full support of her family, who often accompany her to training sessions to watch and support her. “I support my daughter as she has the right to practice sport the same as anyone else, also it is good for her health,” Mohammed Nofal, Inas’s father, said.

Inas remembers her first training session, when she could not run for longer than half a minute, as she explained, laughing. Today, she easily runs 10 kilometres and she is now preparing to participate in many more marathons all over the world.

“If you have a dream, don’t be afraid to follow it,” is Inas’s message to other girls in Gaza.

UNRWA supports physical activities for girls through its regular sports education in schools and through special projects such as Social Sports Schools Project, implemented in partnership with the Real Madrid Foundation. The project aims at enhancing refugee children’s sports skills and team spirit, and providing them with a safe space for recreational activities. It is implemented in 15 of 257 UNRWA schools across Gaza, targeting 580 female and male students. Eight of the 15 schools are girls’ schools. 

UNRWA also provides physical health facilities for women and girls in Gaza through its Social and Recreational Spaces (SRS) project, implemented by the UNRWA Gender Initiative (GI). In total, the GI supports SRS activities in 27 community-based organizations (CBOs) across the Gaza Strip, including Arabic and English literacy classes, arts and drama workshops, book clubs, and physical health activities for psychosocial purposes.

While sports and recreational activities are no panacea for the eradication of poverty, hunger, child mortality or disease, the United Nations recognizes them as powerful tools in the advancement of development and peace objectives. By providing women with such spaces, opportunities and programmes, UNRWA empowers women to take on more self-confident and proactive roles in the community.