It has been ten years since Adv. Zeinab al-Ghonaimi, 62, founded the Center for Women’s Legal Research and Consulting (CWLRC) in the Gaza Strip. The center protects and promotes women’s rights and provides pro bono legal assistance and representation. Since it was established by three lawyers and an accountant, all women and all on a volunteer basis, the center has achieved significant accomplishments, including raising awareness about women’s rights in the Gaza Strip and promoting substantive policy changes. Its activities have inspired and informed other civil society organizations.

Al-Ghonaimi says it was not easy to attract clients at first, as they were suspicious of feminist activities. However, the resistance slowly waned after the center raked in achievements, including the repeal of a law that required widows to give up their children to their deceased husband’s family once boys turn nine and girls turn eleven. “After the change, the status of widows improved”, she says, “they turned from invisible to visible”.

The center now has 17 staff members, including lawyers, social workers and researchers. Every year it provides legal aid to about a hundred women, mostly regarding marital and inheritance laws. It also provides emotional support, individually and in groups, to an additional 100 women. The center runs a daily shelter for women who are victims of domestic abuse called Haya (Arabic for “life”). The shelter was established as an alternative to the single official shelter in Gaza in which women can spend the night with their children, located within a prison facility. The official shelter, according to al-Ghonaimi, “lacks essential social services and treats women there as if they were criminals”. In contrast, the shelter she runs in the center offers emotional support, helps finding alternative housing, and financial support for rent. The center also helps women attain free medical services in cases of abortions or births that result from rape.

“Every woman has the right to choose her way of life according to her wishes and beliefs”, al-Ghonaimi says. She has always worked in the field of women’s rights and is politically affiliated with the Palestinian Authority. Her life story reflects her independent path – pursuing a law degrees in Cairo and a masters in administrative law at al-Quds University in Abu Dis, Jerusalem. She started her career as a journalist and legal researcher, and has always been interested in promoting human rights, specifically workers’ and women’s rights. She worked as a consultant and legal expert on the rights of women, children and workers. She then worked for a decade as an executive in the Palestinian Authority employment ministry, where she focused on workers’ rights. In 2006, she ran for the legislative council as an independent candidate. After the loss to Hamas, she opened the Center for Women’s Legal Research and Consulting, where she continues to volunteer to this day.

She never rests. She says that there is still a lot of work to be done: “Only 46% of divorced women in Gaza manage to get custody of their children. They’re either told that they wouldn’t be able handle the financial expenses, or their parents force them to waive their right to raise their children”. But it’s not just societal constraints, she says, “The closure and the restrictions on freedom of movement in the Gaza Strip take a toll on women there. They are the ones who are usually torn between relatives in the West Bank and relatives in the Gaza Strip. Activists in the center can’t go to training meetings in the West Bank and get to know their counterparts there”, she stresses, “and that’s a threat to the joint activities of Palestinian civil society in general”.