Female empowerment: Women are helping to generate clean energy in the besieged Gaza Strip

Nov 13, 2020

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Majida Sabta, a 40-year-old mother of four children — three of which are blind — remembers the dark nights of the decades long electricity crisis in Gaza. “I was always tired, I was feeling as blind as my kids,” she says. “They were asking for things I could not give, food, drink and other daily needs”.

Starting in 2016, PENGON-Friends of the Earth Palestine began working to mitigate the energy crisis with an emphasis on helping women and mothers. Their solar energy program now reaches 67 families — including Sabta — and they run 15 additional solar-powered agricultural projects.

“I feel much better now, this new energy source helped ease my pressures,” says Majida Sabta. “At least I can now turn on the lights instead of using my phone’s flashlight.”

As another beneficiary of the energy program, Rasmiyyah Ali says her life has been transformed since he home was connected to electricity. ““We’ve been spending our nights in the darkness, sleeping in the darkness,” she says. “My daughter was studying by the light of a small torch.” But not anymore.

Gaza’s electricity crisis

The troubles with electricity began when the Israeli Air Forces attacked the only electrical power plant operating in the Gaza Strip in June 2006. As a result, starting in 2007, Gaza’s 2 million residents began suffering from severe electricity shortages. Most of the year, the residents receive about four hours of electricity a day and spend the other 20 hours with no electricity or lights. In addition to damaging their ability to work, study and carry out basic tasks, this forced forced people to look for alternative means of generating light for their homes. According to Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, 32 civilians including 25 children died due from candle fires or the explosion of generators between the years 2010-2018.

Lack of electricity is one of the most severe, chronic problems afflicting the lives of people in the Gaza Strip for the past decade. Israel supplies Gaza with 125 megawatts of electricity per day, and Egypt another 27 megawatts. But this falls far short of about 450 to 500 megawatts of electricity that Gaza actually needs. All told, the imported electricity only accounts for 33% of what Gaza would need to be fully electrified.

Women are most affected

Majida Sabta, a 40-year-old mother of four children and one of two-hundred and seventy families to benefit from PENGON’s solar projects in Gaza.

The increasing electricity shortage has further exacerbated the suffering of women, who were already forced to make do caring for children and other family members amid harsh living conditions. Traditional family structures still predominate in Gaza, meaning women are considered the primary caretakers in the home. This means that daily tasks, often dependent on electricity, generally must take place during the four-hour daily window when electricity is available. Most of the time, this means during the night.

“By the afternoon our house is completely dark and there is not much we can do except sleep,” says Rida Abu Jazar, a 48-year-old living in Rafah city. “My children can barely read or do their homework. I don’t know what I should have done.”

Women have been forced to change their lifestyles, cut their sleeping hours or stay awake through the night to be ready for when electricity becomes available. Focus group interviews with 30 women, conducted by PENGON, found that all the women claimed the electricity crisis is a constant source of stress and anxiety. When there is no electricity, women cannot complete their daily household work and comfort their children who are scared and stressed which threatens the stability of the and expose them to the risk of violence.

About 70% of the interviewed women have told that they are suffering from tension and depression over their failure to complete all of the chores, while 40% said that this led to violence from their husbands sometime during the past six months. Another 10% said they have faced threats of divorce — a rare occurrence in Gaza.

Rida borrowed 400 shekels from her sister to buy a small portable generator to use for lighting when electricity is cut, but now faces difficulties paying the money back and financing fuel for the generator. “My husband is blaming me all the time for borrowing the money, and he was blaming me before that for not being able to take care of the house chores,” she says. “I wish I could disappear to avoid all this psychological pressure.”

Empowering female entrepreneurs

Between 2016 and 2017, PENGON project coordinators targeted communities most affected by energy scarcity, and they soon realized that the most active organizations in these communities were led-by or comprised of mostly women. Through this engagement, PENGON coordinators began to better understand how the fallout from electricity shortages disproportionately fell on women.

Solar cells to generate electricity in Gaza Strip have spread in recent years to many facilities

PENGON coordinator Abeer Butmeh says, “between 2018 and 2020, we have chosen to continue to work with these women CSO (Civil society organizations) and CBOs (Community-Based Organizations), in this way collectively empowering the women within these organizations and also giving them visibility.” Butmeh continues, “PENGON works at institutional level to strengthen women’s role in their institutions and empower them to be active and influence in their positions. Social acceptance of women in leadership roles in Palestinian society is very low and subjects to resistance from male family members and leaders”.

Butmeh explains that in order to address this, the network organized women-only capacity building spaces, where women feel more comfortable to participate and interact with each other. They also organized separate workshops with the communities to discuss the importance of female participation, aiming to strength social acceptance of women leaders.

PENGON targeted 13 environmental NGOs, five ministries and 17 grassroots associations were targeted by PENGON for training on integrate gender issues in strategies and programs. Beyond combatting the energy issue, this bolsters the chances women can make a difference on other important issues. In a place where everything is controlled by the Israeli occupation, PENGON’s emphasis on self-generated renewable energy, and integrating women into the process is a step toward full access to electricity.

In order to make things clearer for the beneficiaries, a guide had been issued to chart the way for them to enhance participation in energy issues. Khadija Zahran, a trainer and author of the Gender Inclusion guide in Clean Energy Issues, explains that the guide contributes to enhancing the participation of women as beneficiaries and actors in the issues of Environment and renewable energy. Zahran considered that the guide contributes to promoting justice and equity in the distribution of resources and gains, and increasing institutional planning and awareness of institutions and their workers with equality, so the aim of the guide is to set all the basic axes necessary for the work of institutions active in this field.

As for the Trainee Wijdan Sharif, she believes that the guide is “simple and practical roadmap for integrating gender into our work and projects, starting from the planning and budget preparation stage, through implementation and selecting beneficiaries, and ending with evaluation and final reports and documentation related to our projects.”

Al-Sharif, who is an environmental activist, expressed her belief that “women are able to effect change in society through change in themselves and in their immediate surroundings, such as their families and colleagues at work.”

VOTE for PENGON in the Transformative Cities 2020 People’s Choice Award!

Pengon-foe Palestine’s ‘Empowering Women as Sustainable Energy Leaders’ initiative’ has been nominated for the Transformative Cities 2020 People’s Choice Award. Voting is open until November 16th 2020. VOTE for PENGON >>> transformativecities.org/2020award/

For more information:
Abeer Al Butmah
Coordinator of the Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network
Friends of Earth Palestine (PENGON)
Email: info@pengon.org

*This blog was written by Afaq Magazine, PENGON member. View the original article here.