OPINION: How Gaza’s war rubble removal can make way for gender equality by Heba Zayyan
If Palestinian women get involved in rubble removal, they can secure their rightful participation in reconstruction and usher in social change
Heba Zayyan is Head of the United Nations’ Women Gaza Sub-Office. She has over 17 years of experience in the field of gender equality and women’s empowerment and leads UN Women’s portfolio on women, peace, security and humanitarian action in Palestine.
Now that the bombs fell silent in Gaza, another round of reconstruction is set to start, spurred by international donors and development actors. To build anew, the war rubble and debris needs to be cleared. While ostensibly gender-blind, rubble removal is the first step towards sustainable development, which can only be achieved when all Gazans, men AND women, can equally contribute to and benefit from it.
After every round of violence comes the refrain of not wishing to return to Gaza’s “business as usual”. Yet, when the dust settles and post-conflict flurry of interest dissipates, Gazans always return to their harsh status quo: a stifling blockade, underdevelopment and unemployment, to name but a few. Each of these chronic problems are lived by women, men, girls and boys differently. In the rush to rebuild Gaza, post-conflict reconstruction efforts often end up recreating tried-and-tested structures, entrenching some of the harshness that they meant to alleviate. Gender inequality is one such hardship that renders Gaza’s difficult living conditions worse for its women and girls.
As they set to remove the debris and rebuild the Strip, Gazans, donors and development actors have an opportunity to do things differently and reconstruct a more inclusive, fair, equal and cohesive society. If Gazan women get involved in rubble removal, the first step of reconstruction, they can secure their rightful participation throughout the whole reconstruction process, ushering in social change and fairer development.
So far, gender-responsive reconstruction has largely been limited to the advocacy realm, with little influence on policy. This is partly because women are seen as conflict victims rather than actors in peace and reconstruction efforts. Not only is this a gross underestimation of women as social actors, but it is also contrary to UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. Apart from being a global recognition that conflict is inherently ‘gendered’, this resolution marked a watershed in reaffirming women’s untapped vital role in preventing and resolving conflicts as well as rebuilding peaceful societies. Gender-blind reconstruction can also be attributed to societal perception of men and women’s roles and gender stereotypes: Men build houses that women clean.
Rather than reinforcing gender stereotypes and inequalities, reconstruction processes can challenge harmful stereotypes that stand in the way of sustainable development, and create meaningful opportunities for women’s participation and leadership in reconstruction and beyond.
It all starts with a gender-responsive approach to the reconstruction process to assess its impact on men AND women, boy and girls and ensure that their concerns and needs form the core of their endeavour. But without practical policy guidelines on how to integrate gender into post-conflict reconstruction, opportunities are often missed to increase gender inclusion in the long-run.
Rubble removal is a lengthy process that can be expedited when Gaza’s other half also lends a hand. While largely performed by men, rubble removal is a technical exercise. Just like men, women can be trained to manage rubble removal project cycle and can effectively participate in local committees to support project implementation. Apart from encouraging women to venture out to help rebuild their shattered homes and communities, donors and development partners can ensure that contracted construction companies recruit teams of men and women to manage different processes.
For example, teams of women community mobilisers can be responsible for risk awareness campaigns on the dangers of explosive remnants of war, a major risk to the population, especially children. Gazan female civil engineers and architects, largely unemployed, can be sought out and recruited by construction companies. Many have already been recognized for their innovation in improving Gaza’s notorious roads, building parks and making building blocks from war rubble and ashes.
Destruction is gender blind, but reconstruction is not. It is key that all Gazans, women and men, be involved in the reconstruction process of their community. When empowered, women have an enormous potential to contribute positively to the reconstruction and development process. Bringing women onboard to a largely male-dominated endeavour has the potential to shake prejudices and recognize women for who they are: socially active actors.