Samira Al Ghoula, a mother of three from the Gaza Strip, says that life in the blockaded Palestinian enclave has always been hard on her but the outbreak of COVID-19 has turned it into hell.
"My husband used to beat me up but it didn't happen that often. During the lockdown, however, everything changed", recalls Samira referring to the measures imposed by Hamas, an Islamic group that controls the Strip, in late March aimed at curbing the spread of the pandemic. The steps included curfews and the shutting down of private businesses, public institutions, and government offices.
At one point, after a row over money, Samira's husband beat her so severely that she was left bleeding on the floor, while her abuser warned Samira to "keep her mouth shut" and "keep the police at bay", or else he'd kill her.
Point of No Return
It was then that Samira realised she didn't have any other choice but to flee.
Soon enough, however, after packing her belongings and moving in with her parents, she realised that slamming the door was just the beginning of her ordeal.
Although Samira did manage to take her three children, her husband refused to agree to a divorce and put her through a series of humiliating police investigations and court hearings.
Yet, she says, "the ordeals" didn't manage to break her spirit.
"After that time, when he left me lying in a puddle of blood, I realised that I want to get out and save my life. The system here almost always takes the side of a man, especially when it comes to the police but I have taken the case to court and I remain hopeful that at the end of the day I will be free".
Violence against women is not a new concept in Gaza. Abiding by tradition, women are often regarded as the property of men and are often exposed to regular abuse.
In 2019, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics reported that 29 percent of Palestinian women, currently or previously married, have experienced psychological, sexual, physical, social, or economic violence.
Laila Abu Eisha, a psychologist from Gaza, explains this phenomenon by pinning the blame on the pandemic, saying it further worsened already dire economic conditions.
"As a result of the virus and the lockdown that followed shortly after, many Palestinian men have lost their jobs. That accumulated pressure needed an outlet and they found it in the abuse towards their family members", Abu Eisha says.
The Strip has dozens of institutions that aim to help women and children suffering from domestic abuse. But given that they lack any government support, with most resources coming from NGOs and individuals, the assistance those in need get is limited in nature.
But this is not their only problem. "The Palestinian culture and traditions that allow men to control their women very often put those suffering from domestic violence in a tough spot. And biased Palestinian law only makes matters worse", explains Abu Eisha.
Although Palestinian law stipulates fines and imprisonment for those inflicting violence, in practice men manage to get away with their crimes in most cases, even if they end up murdering their victim.
Samira didn't want to end up being a statistic.
"I am determined to get out of that abusive cycle and lead a decent and normal life, away from my husband. I still don't know whether the court will let me divorce him but no matter what the outcome is, I know for a fact...I am not going back", she says.