Agence France Presse (AFP) news agency recently published a report about two sisters from the Gaza Strip, aged 13 and 16, who went to work in the fishing industry to support their family following their father’s illness. The report drew much interest and was translated and published on several Arabic language websites. True, it is out of the ordinary for two girls in a conservative society to find themselves in a field, or sea, as it were, usually reserved for men, but considering the difficult situation in Gaza– 39.3% unemployment in the second quarter of 2010, with the number of people living in abject poverty rising in the last two years from 100,000 to 300,000 according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Territory–many women are taking the initiative to try and earn a living to help their families make ends meet.
In addition to testimonies from the field, statistics are also pointing towards a change. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the percentage of women working outside the home in Gaza in 2009 was 11%, low compared to other countries, however there has been a gradual rise. In 2005, before the closure, only nine percent of women were present in the workforce.
Even though these percentages mainly reflect women working in the public sector and other service jobs, the women of Gaza have also drawn on the reality created by the closure, “inventing” new jobs and joining the informal market, making it hard for statisticians to measure the phenomenon accurately. For example, many women have taken to collecting destroyed remnants of buildings for recycling into building materials, selling goods informally at stands in Gaza’s markets, helping in agricultural work and more. Some of these jobs are even quite risky, as they involve working in the buffer zone, comprising some 30% of Gaza’s farmlands, which Israel has declared off-limits.
Many of these jobs constitute an involuntary substitute for women who previously worked in the sewing and cosmetics sectors (independently or as factory employees). The sewing industry, for example, suffered heavy losses as a result of the ban on import of raw materials for industry over the last three years. Even in July, despite Israel’s easing of restrictions on the import of goods, few raw materials have entered–only 4% of the 3,770 trucks that entered Gaza–because of the limited capacity of the crossings as Israel is currently allowing them to be operated. But even if the required raw materials are allowed in, it will not be possible to take advantage of the full manufacturing potential of the industry and get all of its employees back to work, for the simple reason that the sewing sector relied on the export of products to Israel and the West Bank, and Israel has left intact the almost complete ban on export from the Gaza Strip.
The rise in the percentage of women participating in the workforce is a welcome and positive change, but perhaps not for the current reasons it’s occurring.