by Alaa M. Ismail
This article is part of our Conflict & Health in the Eastern Mediterranean Series. Read the Series Introduction.
Gaza Strip, a densely occupied territory where the majority are concentrated in refugee camps and living under austere conditions, has exceeded two million residents in 2020. Decades of protracted conflict, years of blockade, and deep poverty have caused profound suffering in Gaza. The local economy has witnessed multiple, recurrent crises with 53% of people falling below deep poverty line, more than half of residents registering as unemployed in 2019 and most of residents being dependent on humanitarian aid from national and international organizations. Such conditions have hindered normalcy in all aspects of life, particularly the educational process.
Although Gaza enjoys one of the highest literacy rates in the world, with a rate of 99.5% among college-age group in 2019, the educational process, in schools and universities, faces enormous difficulties. Since 2007, the government has rarely paid full salaries to workers in the public sector, including teachers, which has had deleterious effects on living conditions in general, and on education provision in particular. Students coming from families whose breadwinner is a public employee have struggled to access higher education due to financial limitations. The dropout rate jumped from 40% in 2018-2019 to 70% in 2019-2020 among postgraduate students as reported by Al-Mezan Center for human rights in Gaza.
High rates of unemployment and political instability have caused dire economic situations. Palestinian families in Gaza find themselves overwhelmed with their children’s basic needs such as books, stationery tools, and daily expenses. This has led to preferential gender treatment as many parents consider early marriage, which is relatively high in Gaza, for young female family members as a way to relieve themselves of the financial burden of education. As for males, it has also meant undertaking cheap, unregulated labour to escape from financial hardships whilst studying.
Turning to medical education, a large number of young doctors have quit their jobs and left Gaza to seek better opportunities. Gaza lacks proper educational hospitals, instead, all medical students and residents are trained in public hospitals. Consultants at those hospitals have to manage being full-time doctors serving in the hospital while taking on educational duties as well. This pushes graduates to seek better opportunities abroad. There is no available published data on the exact number of migrant doctors, but it has been an increasingly common occurrence over recent years.
The educational sector has also been damaged due to repetitive attacks under Israeli occupation. For example, the Islamic University, where I work, was directly targeted both in 2008 and in 2014. The science building, which includes all labs in the university, was completely destroyed in 2009 and was completely non-functional until 2020. Even though the building has been rebuilt, the devices and material needed to run the labs were either severely delayed or not permitted to enter Gaza for months by the Israeli authorities. During this troubled period, students in scientific colleges were obliged to study only the theoretical aspects of a subject without any lab-based training.
Another way in which the educational process is impeded are the travel restrictions facing residents of Gaza. Students in Gaza who have opportunities abroad have to go through a long process to obtain the required security permit in order to travel. Such security processes, the seemingly arbitrary delays, and rejections of permits make it nearly impossible for those planning to attend conferences or training courses. Moreover, students travelling to attend undergraduate and postgraduate courses abroad spend their entire study period without returning home because of the fear that they will not be able to obtain the required security permits if they came back to visit.
Challenges in learning and education processes have markedly increased with the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Ministry of Education has withheld all face-to-face activities since the 5th of March for fear of spreading the infection among students and has started using exclusively virtual methods to continue the education process. The new advent of E-learning has proven a significant hurdle for both lecturers and students, primarily as we did not experience it in our medical education and we have limited proficiency in online learning platforms and technologies. Beyond this, chronic electricity shortages continue to distress students and doctors. One the one hand, electricity cuts affect the work flow in hospitals. On the other, many students have had to miss online sessions and exams due to electricity cuts. Alongside electricity shortages, the needs for a personal computer for each student to attend online classes is impossible to meet for families in Gaza. As one study found, with large families crowded into small houses, most find it exceedingly hard for their children to keep up with online education.
Formidable obstacles face Gaza residents as pressure mounts from years of siege, rampant poverty, unemployment and poor health and economic circumstances. The educational sector, especially medical education, bears the brunt of those obstacles. Yet, students and teachers, especially in the health sector, in Gaza continue to prioritize education in the hope of brighter future.
Alaa is a Board-certified Obstetrician and Gynaecologist. She is the Obstetrics and Gynaecology department head at the Islamic University of Gaza. She is active as a women’s health advocate and medical educator. Learn more about Alaa at her LinkedIn Profile.