Abuse of women still rife in Palestinian life, says study

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Sanaa Umar fidgets with her handbag as she describes the daunting task of making a new start when her own father blames her for failing to keep the violent and abusive man who married her at 15 and divorced her at 16.

"My husband started beating me without any reason in the second week of the marriage," says Sanaa, now 17, from Beach refugee camp. Sanaa is not her real name - she is too frightened to be identified. "He beat me with a stick all over my body. It was like he was controlled by a genie. Even his own mother tried to stop him but she couldn't."

The man, a relatively well-off 22-year old, had seen her at a wedding and asked her - very poor - parents for her hand in marriage. Her father, who had made her finish school at 12 and had also often beaten her, was happy. "I agreed because my father agreed," Sanaa explains.

But all along her new husband was conducting a relationship with another 15-year-old girl whose father had forbidden the marriage. At one point, her husband beat Sanaa so badly that she was unable to get out of bed for a week, before he eventually dumped her back at her parents' home.

Thanks to the small but valiant Gaza Women's Empowerment Programme, Sanaa, now living with her parents, has been given a second chance and is training for an independent life as a hairdresser and beautician. At first her father opposed her taking the course because he didn't want her status publicly on display, bringing shame, as he saw it, on the family. "Divorced women have a bad reputation," Sanaa explains.

But while he came round, under pressure from Fatma's mother, he is still verbally abusive. "He makes me guilty because I didn't keep my husband. He uses bad words I cannot repeat."

Sanaa's experience - the pressure into an early marriage, the abuse by father and husband, and the stigma attaching to the victim rather than the assailant - is all too common in Gaza, where more than one in five women say they suffer physical domestic violence but there is not a single women's shelter. A Question of Security, published today by Human Rights Watch (HRW), excoriates the Palestinian police and justice system for the near-total failure to protect women in both Gaza and the West Bank from abuse ranging from "honour killings" to rape, incest, beatings and sexual abuse.

While accepting that closures, economic blockades and bombardment by Israel have weakened Palestinian institutions, HRW strongly rejects that as an "excuse" for long-standing and discriminatory - mainly Jordanian and Egyptian-derived - laws that "condone and perpetuate" such violence or the "virtual absence" of polices to "prevent violence, assist victims and hold perpetrators accountable".

It points out the law drastically reduces penalties for men who kill or hurt their wives or female relatives for committing adultery, offers rapists complete impunity if they agree to marry their victims, allows only male relatives to file incest charges on behalf of children and requires mandatory prosecution for domestic violence if the victim is hospitalised for more than 20 days. The report says the police routinely "mediate" cases of sexual and physical abuse by returning victims to the "care" of their attackers - often in collaboration with tribal or clan leaders. It also condemns the use of - sometimes enforced- virginity testing, whether to exculpate assailants of sexual assault if the tests prove negative, or to dismiss victims' complaints if they prove positive

Only 1 per cent of polled Palestinian women said they had lodged complaints. And of 85 reported cases of rape in 2003, only one resulted in a conviction. There have been 98 officially reported cases of "honour killing" or other domestic murders of women in Gaza and the West Bank since 2000.

* A Palestinian suicide bomber blew herself up yesterday near Israeli troops in Beit Hanoun where Israeli forces killed two women acting as human shields for militants. The Israeli army said one soldier was slightly wounded. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has travelled to the Gaza Strip for talks with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on a unity government.