Saving Gaza's marriages

2017-04-29 11:47
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Khan Younis, Gaza Strip - Ahmed Abu Sido was racing against time to prepare for his recent wedding, after receiving a last-minute "marriage grant" that saved him from postponing the ceremony.

At his father's home in Khan Younis in southern Gaza, Abu Sido briskly painted his bedroom in between drawing up a list of invitees. The 27-year-old barber had delayed his wedding several times, amid the financial hardships that affect all aspects of daily life for Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip.

"I can't afford to get married at this age relying on myself, as my daily income does not exceed 20 shekels [$5], so I turned to one of the marriage facilitation institutions, which provided me with an opportunity to pay in comfortable instalments," Abu Sido told Al Jazeera, noting that even a stripped-down wedding ceremony typically cost at least $5,000. "I do not have this amount and I will never have it."

The deteriorating economic situation in Gaza has opened the door for these types of marriage facilitation organisations, which offer methods of financing weddings for those who cannot afford to pay up front.

Thanks to deals offered by al-Shahd Social Corporation, Abu Sido was able to save $2,000, and he will be paying off the rest of his $3,000 loan in instalments over two years, with a 10 percent interest rate.

The difficult living conditions in Gaza have been blamed for preventing hundreds of marriages in the territory. Unemployment in Gaza exceeds 40 percent, the highest rate in the world, while nearly 80 percent of the population receives social assistance.

Despite Gaza's ballooning population, the number of marriages in the territory dropped by 7 percent last year, to 19,248 from 20,778 in 2015, according to Hasan al-Juju, chairman of the Supreme Council of Islamic Judiciary. The number of divorce cases simultaneously rose, to 3,188 from 2,627 the previous year. The main causes of divorce in Gaza stem from the political and economic challenges of life there, Juju said.

Wael al-Khalili, the chairman of Al-Tayseer Association for Marriage, said that his group aimed to ease the economic burden of marriage for Palestine's most marginalised groups, including the elderly, people with disabilities and orphaned children. Al-Tayseer does not make a profit, but rather runs on donations from wealthy individuals and Islamic organisations outside Gaza.

In addition to financial assistance, the association provides consultations and courses to help new couples adjust and integrate for a successful marriage, Khalili said. Applicants must meet certain criteria in order to obtain assistance from Al-Tayseer, including that the marriage is their first, and that they are unable to pay for the ceremony themselves.

"We were surprised to find in the course of our field research the high number of single men over 30 and the state of poverty," Khalili told Al Jazeera.

Rabah Alankar, the executive director of the Palestinian Wedding Association, said that his institution helped couples to obtain deals on everything from meals, to invitation cards, to bridal clothes.

However, some critics say that many of these sorts of organisations are out to make a profit rather than to help youth.

Um Isa, a widow in Gaza, paid her life savings - about $4,200 - as a dowry for her son's bride, leaving her with no money for the ceremony. She turned to a marriage facilitation organisation, but after the ceremony, the family was unable to pay the required instalments for seven months, and Um Isa says that she was subsequently threatened with arrest.

The Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs intervened, repaying the funds on the family's behalf after conducting an investigation.

"I don't know where we would have ended up without this unexpected assistance," Um Isa told Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, after being engaged for a year and a half, 28-year-old Tahani Ahmed was afraid that her love story would end in separation, as her fiance had been unable to set a wedding date due to financial difficulties. But she convinced him to try a wedding grant, and it was a success - the couple booked their wedding celebration this month.

Ahmed believes that such associations are essential for the opportunities they provide to couples in difficult situations.

"We can now enjoy our time together after getting rid of pressure from our families that we must marry quickly," she said. "You know, in our society, it's not good for the engagement period to be long."

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