City of widows

We meet the NGO giving grants, interest-free loans and a future to Gaza's widows

Niveen Salhy lost her husband in a car accident on Gaza’s potholed streets in 1995.

At 17, pregnant, and mother to a toddler, she had unwillingly joined the ranks of Gaza’s least appealing club, abruptly finding herself in charge of both a funeral and a family.

Unable to pay her rent and feed her two children, she moved back to live with her parents, struggling to scrape by on less than 167 shekels ($47) a month.

“My husband was the only breadwinner in the family,” Salhy says today. “I sought help from different organisations but it was all in vain. My parents helped me but it was not enough. My father was too old to work.”

Salhy’s story is one of many. After years of conflict in which the casualties are mainly men, the Gaza Strip, a tiny sliver of towns, villages and farmland between Egypt, Israel and the Mediterranean sea, is home to hundreds of widows. Their husbands have died in bombings, sectarian slaughter, or simply as a result of life in a brittle, war-torn state, leaving them to fend for themselves in a region saturated with poverty.

Nearly 39 per cent of the enclave’s 1.6 million residents exist on the breadline, with more than half of households classed as ‘food insecure’. Unemployment stands at 34.5 per cent, a stark reminder of how the long-running land-and-sea blockade has choked the local economy, curbing the flow of people and goods across the border. Some 80 per cent of families are aid recipients, dependent on a slow drip of money, food and essential goods to survive.

In Gaza City, the blackened buildings are a reminder of the most recent military assault in November, a strike that again reduced the enclave’s fledgling industrial district to rubble. Widows, as newly-appointed breadwinners, are forced to navigate this volatile landscape alone, often raising children with little money or family support.

“For any person in Gaza life is very hard, but a widow’s suffering is huge,” says Hatem Shurrab, spokesman for Islamic Relief Palestine (IRP). “She is the mother and father, and she lives dependent on aid and local sponsorship. It barely covers the basic needs. Some may have to move into their family’s home, which is a big burden for the wider family. It is a very difficult economic and social position.”

IRP, an arm of the UK-based charitable organisation Islamic Relief, launched operations in Gaza in 1998. Along with other non-profit agencies, its 170 employees channel vital aid to local families, help to fund reconstruction efforts and support employment projects. Backed by donors, it also sponsors some 5,000 Gazan children who have lost their fathers, or both parents, paying $50 a month to help cover their school and living costs.

Five years ago, IRP also began offering grants and interest-free loans to Gazan widows seeking to set up their own small businesses and earn a living. The money has been used to furnish small grocery stores and beauty salons, bought sewing machines, fabric and even cattle, fuelling a slew of entrepreneurial ideas.

“We are investing in these women, so they can depend on themselves,” says Shurrab. “They want to be able to buy their own food, not wait for a food parcel. They want to buy clothes for their own children, without charity. Aid is not a long-term solution for Gaza.”

The charity offers interest-free loans ranging from $2,000 to $4,000, shaped around the scale of the business and the start-up funding required. Grants span from $5,000 to $7,000, and are often used to help rent and decorate premises, as well as to buy goods.

To date, the charity has helped to finance 2,000 small businesses or projects in Gaza, 700 of which were launched by women.

“First-time loans are usually around $2,000, but if the project goes well, we encourage them to take a second loan and expand their business,” says Shurrab. “Last week I visited a widow in the northern Gaza Strip, who started with a $1,000 loan to open a business selling clothing. Now she’s supporting her family. It’s a success.”

Salhy applied to IRP for a grant to open a sewing business, using the money to buy fabric, threads and a sewing machine. Working from a room in her parents’ house, she now creates abayas and other clothes for her customers. Eventually, she hopes to earn enough to send her eldest son to college.

“I could not sit and wait for aid,” she says. “The cost of living here is rising every day.”

Without her sewing business, Salhy faced competing with a glut of other jobseekers for a handful of poorly paid roles, some offering just 15 shekels (about $4) a day.

“Now, I make 30 to 50 shekels a day [about $8-14],” she says. “It’s better to have a permanent source of income, no matter how small it is. I wish I had a shop, but I’m happy with what I have.”

IRP hopes to smooth the path for more widows to enter the workplace. In 2011, it rolled out a pilot education scheme that paid for 20 women to return to school and complete two-year diploma courses in subjects ranging from administration to media. In June, all 20 of the women graduated.

“They want to move on, all of them, to work to improve the economic situation of their families,” says Shurrab. “Yes, they can manage to survive, but that is not the goal. The goal is to survive with dignity and for their children to thrive. For that to happen, we must invest in the people themselves.”