It’s 7 a.m. on a Monday morning in Gaza, Palestine. The 70-square-metre kitchen, located in the ground floor of the Hayat Centre, the first anti-violence centre in the Gaza Strip, is bustling with activities. Five women in chef’s coats are happily preparing ingredients for cooking.
“Today we have to prepare for a big order,” says Warda Hassan*, pointing to a white board with a list of food items. “We received another order of pastries for a wedding. Also, there will be a delivery to two supermarkets at 9 a.m., 20 pizzas each,” adds Hassan, with a big smile on her face.
Hassan and the other trainees are working at the Hayat Business Incubator (Food Incubator) initiative for women survivors of violence, supported by UN Women and funded by the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS). Started in 2017, the project is piloting a comprehensive model for addressing violence against women by providing skills training and income-generating opportunities to five women who are survivors of domestic violence, while also providing them with essential services, such as psychosocial support and social workers who assist them in accessing legal aid.
To Lubna Masalha*, another trainee, the Food Incubator is more than just a workplace: “People like the food we make; it gives us a sense of purpose.”
“My husband used to beat me when I disagreed with him. Now that I bring regular income to support the entire family, his violence has stopped and he respects me. Also, I have the freedom to buy things for myself and my children,” Masalha explains, while placing pieces of dough on the baking tray.
“Economic empowerment of women is crucial for reducing violence against them,” says Tahani Qasem, project coordinator at the Hayat Centre. Her opinion is backed by the findings of a recent UN Women research on gender-based violence services in Gaza, where all service providers agreed that earning an income was a critical protection and prevention factor for violence against women.
All five women who are part of the Food Incubator project now have steady income and have reported better power dynamics within their households. The abuse has stopped, in cases where the women still live with their partners, and their families respect them more.
For Mirvat Souri*, learning how to produce food products that look and taste the same every day, packaging them properly, and receiving orders through social media, were new skills that she had to learn. But the process has given her confidence and she hopes to run her own business one day.
“All trainees have experiences in making similar products at home, but making them for selling and attracting customers is a different story,” says Samar Al-Nabahin, instructor at the Food Incubator. Currently, the number of social media followers of the Food Incubator has reached almost 3,000 and more than 10 customers place orders daily via social media.
“Now that I have all the skills to run a food production business, I feel much more hopeful about the future,” says Souri, as her fingers deftly shape a spinach stuffed pastry within seconds.
Highlighting the success of the Food Incubator model, Heba Zayyan, who heads the UN Women office in Gaza, said: “Food Incubator is a great start to turn things around for women survivors of violence in Gaza, as it enables the survivors to learn sustainable market skills and to stand on their own feet, while receiving services that help them recover, leave abusive relationships or find ways to improve their situation.”
Once all five trainees graduate from the Food Incubator project and set up their own income-generating enterprises, the Hayat Centre plans to replicate the model to assist more women survivors of violence. The Centre will also support peer-to-peer learning, with the first group of trainees coaching a new group of women.
*Note: Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the survivors.