A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
For 40-year-old Naima Abu Shawareb living in Al Shaati refugee camp, the electricity crisis has brought increased hardships over and above what she was facing already. Not able to afford a portable generator, when the power is cut her house is only lit by candles and she huddles together for warmth with her four children and husband in one room.
“By the afternoon our house is completely dark and there is not much we can do except sleep,” she said. “My children can barely read and do their homework, and I’ve had to borrow money to buy a pair of glasses for one of my girls because her eyesight keeps getting worse.”
Naima told Oxfam that she has almost stopped cooking, in order to preserve the little cooking gas that she has left, while many others have reported resorting to cooking on firewood.
“We’re eating mostly sandwiches; I can’t afford to use the gas when I don’t know when I can get my cylinder refilled,” she said. Even washing clothes has become impossible for Naima, and a source of arguments with neighbours.
“Last week we finally got some electricity for two hours at 2am so I woke up quickly to switch on the washing machine, but it was too noisy and the neighbours were complaining,” she said.
Economic and physical pressures
Naima was doing temporary work as a seamstress through a sewing workshop funded by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO) and run by Oxfam and local partner Shaati Women’s Center.
As the sole provider in her family, the work helped her raise some extra money which she mainly used for her children’s education and to cover old debts. But now that the project is over, the economic and physical pressures of the electricity crisis have reminded Naima how vulnerable she is, and how difficult it is to get out of poverty while living with the uncertainties that come from the blockade.
Naila Ayesh, Director of Oxfam partner Women’s Affairs Center (WAC) in Gaza says that Naima is not alone in her worries.
“The electricity crisis puts disproportionate stress on women. Most women are expected to have everything in the home prepared and ready for their husbands’ approval. When there is no electricity, women cannot complete their daily work inside the home. The children are stressed and scared and they have to comfort them. They have to find ways to juggle the household expenses to afford the fuel for the generator. All of these things increase internal problems within the home, putting women at risk of violence and disempowerment,” she said.
"A game between men"
Even though women are often disproportionately affected, Ayesh says that organizations like WAC face an uphill battle in putting women’s issues on the agenda when crises and disasters arise. Although their problems are often brushed aside, Ayesh says women in Gaza and the electricity crisis actually have a lot in common.
“The blockade is the root cause of the ongoing fuel crisis and it is also why women in Gaza struggle in daily life. Both these problems are now compounded by the political divide, which prevents the parties from working together to solve the electricity crisis or to approve legislation that can advance women’s status and rights. Women’s groups know how critical reconciliation is and we have been doing so much to try to put it on the table. We want to contribute, to be a part of the process, but thus far it has been a game between men.”
Meanwhile regular power cuts and fuel shortages continue in Gaza. Although some fuel has come in from the tunnels, it has thus far not been enough to meet daily needs and replenish depleting stocks.
On 23 February the International Committee of the Red Cross supplied 150,000 liters of diesel to Gaza’s health ministry that will be used to help 13 public hospitals deliver essential health services for the next 10 days.
The Egyptian government has also announced a long-term project to connect the strip to Egypt’s electricity grid, but this project will take upwards of 5 years to complete.