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Story from the field: "We cannot cover all the needs, but at least we are trying to do something"

Fatima Al-Wahaidy, a Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Program and Coordination Specialist, recently completed a three-month deployment with the DRC Standby Roster, working with the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) GBV program in Gaza. In an interview conducted by the DRC Standby Roster intern, Maral Afsharian, Fatima shares valuable insights into addressing GBV in Gaza and the operational complexities involved in delivering aid and support in Gaza.

Photo: Fatima Al-Wahaidy

Posted on 03 Apr 2024

Maral: You spent the first two months of your deployments working remotely due to difficulties of entering Gaza. Can you tell us about your experience working remotely versus working on the ground in Gaza?

Fatima: At the beginning, it was frustrating to work remotely. UNFPA was continuously trying to facilitate my deployment to Gaza. I pursued this assignment intending to be on the ground and to gain firsthand insights as nothing compares to the invaluable perspectives gathered from direct interactions with the affected people. Also, the emergency in Gaza is so unique, that the remote support was hindered by the complexities of the situation, especially with the displacement of national partners and communication blackouts and disruptions.

Upon arriving in Gaza, the reality on the ground was entirely different from what was reflected in the reports and the news. The UNFPA team, like all UN agencies and international organizations, was based in a relatively safe area at the time in Rafah which offered a glimpse into the harsh realities faced by the Palestinians in Gaza. While the level of destruction in Rafah may not have mirrored that of other areas within the Gaza Strip, especially the Gaza City and the North, the evident suffering, overcrowding, and scarcity of resources to serve more than 1 million people in an area that used to have a population of no more than 400,000 highlighted the profound challenges confronting individuals who were forcibly displaced to a confined space, deprived of basic necessities, separated from their safety networks and their homes, and facing the daily reality of undermined dignity. This situation is even more challenging for women and girls and all the vulnerable groups including the elderly and persons with disability.

UNFPA was determined to continue serving in Gaza through GBV and Sexual and Reproductive Health programs. During my deployment, we reactivated the GBV subcluster, a coordination forum focusing on the prevention and response to GBV, and we fostered face-to-face interactions, which proved vastly more enriching than virtual meetings. Interacting with and listening to local partners highlighted that the standardized approaches derived from global standards were insufficient in addressing the needs of this emergency. Instead, we worked together on crafting interventions grounded in local context and realities. My connection to Gaza, having previously worked for UNFPA in 2014, facilitated the relationships with national partners and the consolidation of collaborative efforts aimed at collective progress.

Maral: Once you arrived in Gaza, how was your work and living set up there?

Fatima: Several guest houses were allocated for the accommodation of personnel from various UN and international organizations in deconflicted zones. However, there were so many limitations on the ability to ensure that the location was prepared to meet the security measures that we see in other locations for international humanitarian workers. Even though the guesthouse was in a deconflicted location, you kept fearing for your safety.

For the day-to-day operations, we were working from a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) operational center. It was a clinic, that was shifted to accommodate the organizations to coordinate their work and operate since there was internet there. The commute to this operational center was a challenge because every day you could see tents and the number of displaced people were increasing on the road, so you had to find other ways to reach your destination before the curfew. It was like a stark daily reminder of how challenging the situation was.

It was like a stark daily reminder of how challenging the situation was

/  Fatima Al-Wahaidy

Maral: You have experience working in various countries, what are some of the issues you faced in your work that are unique to this context?

The operational environment presented unparalleled challenges, unlike any I had encountered before. This situation was compounded by numerous layers of obstacles from access restrictions, displacement, continuous bombing, and restrictions on aid delivery to fuel.

While attention was directed towards areas like Rafah, due to access restrictions, there remained urgent needs in other regions such as the central and northern areas of the Gaza Strip. Daily battles ensued, not only with obtaining mission clearance but also with the entry of much-needed aid. One pressing issue that gained significant attention was the dire demand for menstrual hygiene products for women and girls—a necessity that could not be overlooked.

Moreover, the shortage of international staff added another layer of complexity. With limited personnel available, we found ourselves stretched thin, often having to fulfill multiple roles simultaneously to ensure essential functions and responsibilities were covered effectively. In such an environment, adaptability and resilience became indispensable traits as we navigated the challenges of the operational landscape.

Maral: Could you outline some of the key tasks during your deployment?

Fatima: During my assignment, I was covering the UNFPA GBV program as well as coordination. Usually, the focus is on strengthening national capacities to prevent and respond to GBV. This encompasses various initiatives, such as strengthening services available for survivors and groups at risk of GBV, including the establishment of safe spaces for women and girls, supporting safe houses, and providing psychosocial support.

However, our efforts were severely challenged by the widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure and the utilization of available buildings as shelters for displaced individuals. In this context, identifying protection issues became paramount. Over time, as displacement persisted and resources decreased, concerns regarding protection and GBV began to surface among affected populations. To address this, we worked persistently to ensure the provision of menstrual health management items to women and girls as a risk mitigation intervention and providing psychosocial support services as well as establishing clinical management of rape services.

Additionally, effective coordination among operating organizations is essential through the GBV sub-cluster. We facilitated collaborative efforts, bringing together various agencies with programs related to GBV. This entailed ensuring alignment and complementarity in our approaches to maximize our collective impact and reach as many people as possible with the services we were providing or supporting. Coordination efforts were aimed at streamlining resources and avoiding duplication, ultimately enhancing the overall response to GBV in crisis-affected areas.

Maral: Reflecting on your past experiences through previous work in Gaza, how would you describe the evolution of gender-based issues in the region?

As I mentioned, I used to work with UNFPA during the 2014 escalations in Gaza, and people were also displaced and moved to the UNRWA schools for shelter. At that time, organizations were able to implement programs and meet the needs of the affected people. I remember that we were discussing all the possible ways to ensure that sexual and reproductive health services were available for women within the schools to facilitate their access to services including survivors of GBV. Now, the reality is different and therefore the discussions and needs have changed. The UNRWA schools, for example, are hosting four to five times more than their capacity and therefore the ability to provide services within the centers is not possible anymore. The overcrowdedness and lack of privacy to establish and provide GBV services is also a challenge.

Previously, there was a space to do assessments and safety audits to identify gender-based violence-related issues but it is almost impossible to do this now. The operational environment and the restrictions do not allow for planning a response, unlike in previous years where we were able to ensure that there were referral pathways and support services for survivors. What we have mapped out now is a skeleton of an emergency referral pathway, it does not cover all the needs and it can collapse at any time if there is another wave of displacement or further ground operations. We cannot cover all the needs, but at least we are trying to do something. The situation in Gaza is very unpredictable and changes by the hour.

Maral: Could you share more about the collaboration with local communities and national organizations?

Fatima: UNFPA adopts a localized approach to program implementation, heavily relying on national organizations as part of the commitment to support national capacities. However, these organizations faced significant challenges, including displacement, loss of premises, and even casualties and injuries among their staff, compounded by funding cuts. This particularly affected women-led organizations working on GBV prevention and response.

Despite these obstacles, these organizations remain crucial partners in outreach efforts, especially in distributing essential items for menstrual health management. Their deep-rooted understanding of the community and established rapport with beneficiaries enable effective communication and delivery of services and assistance.

In the current context, the involvement of national organizations is indispensable. They serve as the backbone of operations, engaging directly with women and girls daily. The trust and relationships they have built within the community are invaluable, guiding us in planning and implementing future strategies effectively. Their expertise and on-the-ground insights are essential for navigating the complex challenges we face.

A ceasefire is the top priority, then ensuring the unimpeded flow of aid and revitalizing the commercial sector to meet the basic needs of the population including the menstrual health needs of women and girls.

/  Fatima Al-Wahaidy

Maral: I can only imagine how challenging it must be to work on the ground in Gaza, how did you maintain resilience and prevent burnout, if possible, when working in that challenging environment?

Fatima: Communication was a struggle even for us as humanitarian workers, but whenever there was a chance, I reached out to my personal support system. The tools we usually resort to during these deployments including going on walks and exercising, were not available to us.

Maral: From your perspective and your experience, what would you say are the most urgent issues to prioritize for addressing gender-based violence?

A ceasefire is the top priority, then ensuring the unimpeded flow of aid and revitalizing the commercial sector to meet the basic needs of the population including the menstrual health needs of women and girls. Additionally, directing flexible funds towards women's rights organizations and women-led initiatives is imperative to bolster their capacity to respond effectively to the needs. These grassroots organizations are the first-line responders and must be adequately supported.

Also, addressing the contributing factors to GBV is paramount. Overcrowded living conditions, inadequate shelter, and the absence of separate and dignified sanitation facilities contribute significantly to the prevalence of GBV.

One particularly sad memory remains in my mind: the sight of a latrine situated in an informal market near the UNRWA operational center, where women queued for a latrine amidst a group of men. This humiliating scenario highlights the urgent need for segregated and dignified facilities and reflects a glimpse of the reality for women and girls. 50% of the WASH facilities lack proper separation, further exacerbating the vulnerability of women and perpetuating the cycle of GBV. Such circumstances highlight the critical importance of addressing these systemic issues to ensure the safety and dignity of all individuals, particularly women, in crisis-affected areas.

Maral: Regarding gender-based violence, are there any common misconceptions or misunderstandings about these issues in Gaza?

Fatima: In all emergencies, including in Gaza, gender-based violence remains a critical concern. However, it gets overlooked compared to food, water, sanitation, and health (WASH) responses. Addressing protection issues is always challenging as the vulnerability to violence exacerbates during such crises, making the establishment of support services for GBV survivors exceptionally difficult.

Justifying violence tends to become more prevalent in emergency contexts, further underscoring the urgency of prioritizing GBV prevention and response efforts. However, despite these challenges, it is imperative to maximize our efforts in establishing services tailored to support and empower survivors of GBV, ensuring their safety, dignity, and well-being are upheld to the extent possible even in the most challenging circumstances.

Maral: Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. Is there anything you would like to add?

I am immensely grateful for the invaluable work of national organizations, particularly especially women’s rights organizations and women-led organizations. They are the true heroes on the ground demonstrating remarkable resilience and determination in serving their communities amidst challenging circumstances and insufficient protection for humanitarian workers. Despite these obstacles, and the reality that they are directly affected by this emergency, they have regrouped and mobilized to provide vital support to those in need, embodying the spirit of strength and solidarity. I was deeply humbled by their unwavering commitment to serve, utilizing whatever resources were available, and their courageous efforts to amplify the voices of women and girls.

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