RAMALLAH, West Bank – A new report presents an alarming picture of the abuse of women in the Palestinian territories, with police, courts and government agencies failing to treat violence such as rape and beatings as a crime.
Human Rights Watch cited practices such as rape victims being forced to marry assailants and light sentences for men who kill female relatives suspected of adultery. In a report released today, the rights group said families, tribal leaders and authorities, backed by tradition and discriminatory laws, often sacrifice victims’ interests for “family honor.”
And the problem is getting worse with growing poverty and lawlessness in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the New York-based group said.
The report comes about a year after a Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics survey of more than 4,000 households found 23 percent of women said they experienced domestic violence, but only 1 percent had filed a complaint. Two-thirds said they were subjected to psychological abuse at home.
Human Rights Watch urged the Palestinian president, parliament and government ministries to make protection of women a top priority. It said more can be done despite the conflict with Israel and the cash crisis in the Palestinian Authority brought on by the rise to power of the Islamic group Hamas.
“The main failing of the system is the failure to treat violence against women as a crime and to address it accordingly,” researcher Lucy Mair said. “We want to say you can take some positive steps and it’s imperative to provide protection to more women.”
Mair said Human Rights Watch studied the Palestinian territories – rather than investigating abuses in other traditional societies – because some Palestinian officials had signaled they were ready for change.
“This made us optimistic we have something to work with,” she said.
Commenting on the report, Adnan Amr, a legal adviser to President Mahmoud Abbas, agreed Palestinian authorities are “weak” in enforcing the law, but blamed “the security and political situation we have been through over the past two years.”
“All Palestinians, not only women, are paying a heavy price for the chaos,” Amr said, referring to struggles between rival Palestinian groups.
Human Rights Watch’s report, based on dozens of interviews with victims, social workers, lawyers and police chiefs in the West Bank and Gaza, said abusers in the Palestinian territories are granted virtual immunity.
Rapists who marry their victims are not prosecuted, it said, and such deals are often arranged by the families, tribal leaders and police.
Even those assigned to protect the victims often push for such an outcome. The director of the West Bank’s only shelter for teenage girls is quoted as saying she arranged five such marriages in her six-year tenure.
Palestinian law is lenient with men who kill female relatives because of adultery. Yet it bars rape and incest victims from having abortions. Rape within marriage is not considered a crime, the report said.
Police and hospital doctors are not trained to handle abuse cases and often further humiliate victims, the report said.
In one hospital in the West Bank city of Nablus, a doctor announced to a crowded waiting room that his unmarried 16-year-old patient was pregnant. The girl’s mother later cited that incident as the main reason for her decision to kill her daughter, according to a case documented in the report.
A premium is placed on female virginity, with rapists facing a lesser punishment if the victim is not a virgin, the report said. Virginity tests are imposed on sexual abuse victims against their will.
Women’s fates are increasingly determined by tribal leaders or Palestinian Authority-appointed governors, rather than the overloaded courts. The informal justice system is often arbitrary and biased against victims, Human Rights Watch said.
Victims are often afraid to come forward because of social stigma, the perceived futility of complaining and fear of inviting retribution by relatives, the report said.
Manal Kleibo, a lawyer at the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling in the West Bank town of Ramallah has detected a change in some attitudes in recent years, saying authorities are increasingly willing to work with her group.
For example, she said, growing numbers of police officers are attending workshops on how to handle sexual abuse cases. Some families no longer force their daughters to marry rapists, she said, citing the case of a 14-year-old girl who instead was taken to a secret shelter in the West Bank with her family’s support.
Hanan Ashrawi, an independent legislator, expressed doubt Human Rights Watch’s call for a repeal of laws that discriminate against women will go anywhere since the Palestinian parliament is dominated by the Islamic fundamentalists of Hamas.
“We don’t have a majority for reforms on these issues,” she said.