The role of gender amongst Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon

In 1947, the United Nations launched Resolution 181, otherwise known as the Partition Plan, which aimed to divide the British Mandate of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish State. As history has shown, this was not a smooth transition and on the creation of the State of Israel on May 14th 1948, the first Arab-Israel War was declared[1]. It is from this war that stems the definition of a Palestinian Refugee. As the UNWRA[2] stipulates, a Palestinian Refugee is a “person whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” This working definition also includes descendants from Palestinian Refugees including adopted children. As of December 2019, there are 476,033 registered Palestinian refugees including 36,817 children and 5,254 Palestinian refugees from Syria. 45% of these Palestinian refugees live in 12 refugee camps across Lebanon.



Three-dimensional discrimination


Being a refugee means that you are constantly faced with uncertainty and injustice. You don’t have the right to freedom anymore, and you become psychologically and physically disoriented[3]. The specific case of Palestine gives a new layer to their refugee status. With Palestine not being recognised as a state, Palestinians do not have a legal status vis-a-vis of lebanon[4] and it is the UNWRA who has taken the responsibility of ensuring the livelihood of Palestinian refugees.[5] The latter is linked to exerting legal, democratic, cultural or socio-economic rights and duties. Citizenship is a “comprehensive, multidimensional, and diverse democratic concept”[6]. This is a three-dimensional discrimination that women endure in Lebanon: one is their Palestinian nationality, one is their gender and another is their refugee status. Indeed, female Palestinian refugees are classified as stateless or identity-less as they don’t have access to their citizenship. In other words, they aren’t represented by the Personal Status Laws of Lebanon[7]. Their lack of citizenship prevails them from accessing basic needs leading to a lack of dignity and humanity. Many Lebanese locals consider them to be a ‘political threat with parasitic tendencies” [8]. This isn’t, however, the case in all host countries. For example, Jordan has taken appropriate measures to provide a special status for Palestinian refugees, which gives them the same political, social and economic rights as a national.


However, it is worth noting that female Palestinian refugees seek to break free from this three-dimensional discrimination process, where they could obtain a semblance of equality through a chain of rights and duties based on four pivotal values[9]. First and foremost, the value of equality is indeed at the heart of getting ‘equal’ citizenship status. According to Ali[10], female Palestinian refugees measured this value of equality by “opportunity and access to education, work, poverty ownership, equal treatment before the law and the judiciary, recourse to legal methods and tools, recourse to the judiciary, access to knowledge, access to information, etc.” The second pivotal value is the value of freedom. This is mainly defined by the freedom of movement, to which the current refugee camps and Palestinian congregations pose a barrier as discussed later. This component however also incorporates the freedom of belief and religious rites, as well as freedom of opinion and expression which can also be seen as the accessibility of support for opposition issues, stances and policies. The third aspect to obtain this ‘equal’ status is the value of participation. This is mainly the right to participate in local and national political life. For Palestinian women, this is currently limited to representation within Palestinian partisan and national frameworks, especially within the framework of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. A lack of representation means that their specific needs will not be taken into consideration. Lastly, to obtain citizenship, there is a social responsibility from which they should benefit. Indeed, although women pay their taxes and social security fees, they do not get the benefits in return. This discrimination represents a denial from society to provide their social responsibility towards their ‘citizens’.



The Sex-Education-Work Paradox


The aforementioned barriers and the lack of the four pivotal values have a negative cumulative effect on education and economic participation, which is reinforced for women with the ‘sex-education-work paradox’[11]. With Women Right’s advocates around the world fighting for access to education and economic participation of women, it is to no surprise that the same challenges are faced by female Palestinian Refugees, reinforced by the three-dimensional discriminatory factors mentioned above. In the following section, we will explore this paradox and its negative cumulative impact on Palestinian Refugee Women.


Education is considered luxury participation for Palestinian refugee women, as they are often subject to aversion for simply trying to access education, as explained below. Living in refugee camps, they are faced with the real possibility of sexual harassment and have to adapt their living habits accordingly. From a young age, they are instructed not to leave the house or the refugee camps, to not put themselves in harm’s way, even to attend school. This lack of security and vulnerability means women are less likely to leave the camps to obtain an education: in other words, they are less independent. However, even if a woman were to find a way to obtain an education safely, due to her commitments inside the household she would have less time to study, creating another factor for the educational attainment gap. Traditionally, a woman is constrained to be married and care for the house. Yet she cannot be married if she is a survivor of sexual aggression. The risk a woman would have to take to obtain education outside the camps (and sometimes inside the camp) is not only sexual assault, but is also the risk of breaking social norms and traditions through an ‘immoral’ act[12]. Yet, the UNWRA and NGOs have made progress to counter this threat and there has been a clear decline in illiteracy rates. Indeed, whilst there is 78% illiteracy amongst 45 to 60 years whilst it is 13% amongst 15 to 19 years old.[13]


In terms of economic participation, regardless of their gender, Palestinian refugees are prohibited from obtaining certain managerial and professional jobs, creating another obstacle to financial independence. Their participation in the labour market in Lebanon is usually through unemployment or the informal labour market, which is even more so for women[14]. The intersectionality of being a woman with their social and cultural background creates a negative cumulative effect on their economic well-being. One source states that the percentage of women working has increased from 17% in 1991 to 21% in 2015[15]. A different source has statistically found that only 15% of women participate in the economy, which decreases to 10% for married women[16]. This lack of income in most families reinforces the poverty experienced in the refugee camps. As expected, the correlation between education and wage is prevalent and the gender pay gap is also a considerable factor. The pay gap for women who have between 0-6 years of education is USD 94.6 per year, for 6 to 9 years education is USD 132.6, and for 9 to 12 years of education it is USD 198. This inequality is undeniably a burden for many Palestinian women, whose work is viewed as inferior to that of a man.

This disparity has only worsened with the current economic crisis in Lebanon. Many lebanese institutions have laid off palestinian refugees as a result of the decrease in the purchasing power of the lebanese pound. [17]



Title: Wage by Education level
Source: Hanafi, S., 2014. Employment of Palestinian refugee women in Lebanon: opportunities and hurdles. Refugee Survey Quaterly, 33(4), pp.31-49.

All of these factors testify to the hardship Palestinian women refugees face and the risks they would have to take to obtain an education. The structural challenges imposed by the Lebanese government prohibits social mobility and the right to dignity through economic independence. With the ongoing Israel-Arab conflicts, the difficulties surrounding citizenship will likely not be changed in the foreseeable future. Indeed, the recent attacks on Gaza have created an upsurge amongst Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Numerous organisations try to improve the living conditions of these refugees, notably the UNWRA, but the situation remains very dire.


Sarah Surget is a humanitarian activist specialised in Mental health. She is currently completing a field mission in Lebanon. In Beirut, she supported people affected by the August 4th explosion by opening a medical and psychological clinic. Now, she is based on the Syrian border in Akkar where she is working with Syrian refugees, mainly teaching french and creating and psychological support system around trauma.


Footnotes:

[1] Global Conflict Tracker. 2021. Israeli-Palestinian Conflict | Global Conflict Tracker. [online] Available at: <https://microsites-live-backend.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/israeli-palestinian-conflict> [Accessed 25 May 2021].

[2] UNWRA, n.a . Lebanon | UNRWA. [online] UNRWA. Available at: <https://www.unrwa.org/where-we-work/lebanon> [Accessed 23 January 2021].

[3]Albanese, F. and Takkenberg, A., 2020. Palestinian refugees in international law. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] UNRWA. 2019. Protection in Lebanon | UNRWA. [online] Available at: <https://www.unrwa.org/activity/protection-lebanon> [Accessed 18 May 2021].

[5] Zakharia, L., n.d. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon | Social Watch. [online] Socialwatch.org. Available at: <https://www.socialwatch.org/node/10601> [Accessed 18 May 2021].

[6] Ali, L., 2015. Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon. In: Citizenship, Gender and Democracy building. Beirut: Euromed Feminist Initiative, pp.33-37.

[7]ibid

[8] Hammoud, M., 2017. Educational Obstacles Faced by Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon. Contemporary Review of the Middle East, 4(2), pp.127-148.

[9] ibid

[10] Ali, L., 2015. Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon. In: Citizenship, Gender and Democracy building. Beirut: Euromed Feminist Initiative, pp.33-37.

[11] Abdulrahim, S., 2017. Educational attainment and economic participation in Palestinian when living in Lebanon: analysis of data from the labour force survey among Palestinian refugees. Science Direct, 390(1).

[12] Hammoud, M., 2017. Educational Obstacles Faced by Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon. Contemporary Review of the Middle East, 4(2), pp.127-148.

[13] Zakharia, L., n.d. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon | Social Watch. [online] Socialwatch.org. Available at: <https://www.socialwatch.org/node/10601> [Accessed 18 May 2021].

[14] Hanafi, S., 2014. Employment of Palestinian refugee women in Lebanon: opportunities and hurdles. Refugee Survey Quaterly, 33(4), pp.31-49.

[15] Hanafi, S., 2014. Employment of Palestinian refugee women in Lebanon: opportunities and hurdles. Refugee Survey Quaterly, 33(4), pp.31-49.

[16] Abdulrahim, S., 2017. Educational attainment and economic participation in Palestinian when living in Lebanon: analysis of data from the labour force survey among Palestinian refugees. Science Direct, 390(1).

[17] Suleiman, J., 2020. Palestinian Refugees and Lebanon’s Multilayered Crisis - Al-Shabaka. [online] Al-Shabaka. Available at: <https://al-shabaka.org/memos/palestinian-refugees-and-lebanons-multilayered-crisis/> [Accessed 18 May 2021].