Maria Vamvakinou MP – spoke about women’s health in West Bank and Gaza

photo of Maria Vamvakinou MP
July 4, 2011

I want to speak about the impact that the restriction of freedom of movement resulting from occupation and blockade has on the daily lives of the Palestinian people, with a particular reference to the Palestinian women living in the West Bank and Gaza. I want to speak about the violation of their right to access medical treatment and services that often results in premature and in many cases avoidable deaths.

Full speech

Ms VAMVAKINOU (Calwell) (21:10): Over the years in this place I have co-chaired the parliamentary Breast Cancer Network. Indeed, my very first private member’s motion, in 2002, called for breast prostheses to be made available through a Medicare rebate. Throughout my parliamentary career I have remained active in and close to this very significant issue, which is still the most common cause of death amongst women in Australia and throughout much of the world.

We all know that cancer profoundly and personally affects almost every Australian family. There are very few people in communities throughout Australia who have not come into contact with the effects and the consequences of this disease. Cancer is a human issue and is a disease that cuts across age, gender, ethnicity and social groups. Breast cancer in particular strikes at the very heart of families and individuals. Over the years in this country we have built a formidable foundation of research, treatment and awareness programs, matched nowhere else in the world, for the benefit of Australian women. Overall a great deal of work is done to raise awareness and funds, and our doctors and scientists have often led their field in new discoveries. While there is always more work to be done here, we are a world away from the reality facing many women in the developing world.

This brings me to my grievance this evening. I want to speak about the impact that the restriction of freedom of movement resulting from occupation and blockade has on the daily lives of the Palestinian people, with a particular reference to the Palestinian women living in the West Bank and Gaza. I want to speak about the violation of their right to access medical treatment and services that often results in premature and in many cases avoidable deaths. When I began to think of the women in Gaza, I wondered how they went about their daily lives under the shackles of the Israeli blockade and indeed how they were able to care for their families’ daily needs whilst living in the shadow of the Israeli occupation. In particular, I wondered whether they had ever heard of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Had they ever attended a pink ribbon morning tea? I thought about what facilities are available to them, the quality of these facilities and, indeed, the survival rates and quality of treatment. It was this contemplation, amongst others, that ultimately led me to Palestine in April this year.

I have spoken on the political situation in another debate, but this evening I want to highlight the impact of the political situation on women with breast cancer. I want to inform the House about how the Israeli blockade of Gaza impacts on an area of women’s health that is important to Australian women. We take availability of health care for granted in this country, because we live in a democratic and free society that respects the rights of all, and we all are equal before the law. We live in a society where we can expect the best medical care and where information is made available and in a society which does not deny us a trip to hospital or to the doctor on the basis of our identity.

I take this opportunity to bring to the attention of this House and commend AngliCORD and its CEO, Misha Coleman, for launching the Women Die Waiting campaign—a campaign that seeks to highlight that while cancer itself does not discriminate, issues relating to late-stage detection and access to appropriate treatment does, and it certainly does for the women in Gaza. AngliCORD has launched its Women Die Waiting campaign to raise financial support for a more comprehensive early-detection and breast cancer awareness raising program. I too join in advocating for a more timely and streamlined medical permit process for people who need treatment and care outside of Gaza. It is our responsibility to alert the world to the consequences of the grave injustices perpetrated against the Palestinian people through Israel’s continuing occupation—an injustice that affects every aspect of their lives and in this case the lives of women with breast cancer. I want to quote Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, from an essay published in the Haaretz newspaper:

One out of every nine women gets breast cancer. There are doctors who say that statistic has worsened lately and now stands at one out of every eight. The disease is particularly violent in younger women and the primary growth in the breast spreads rapidly to the liver, the lungs, the bones and the brain. Is there anything worse than being a young woman with cancer whose chances are slim? It turns out that there is – being a young Palestinian woman with cancer whose chances are slim.

The women of Gaza share with Australia and much of the rest of the world the unfortunate statistic of breast cancer being the leading cause of cancer related deaths amongst women. However, significant disparities exist between the five-year survival rates for Palestinian, Israeli and Australian women diagnosed with breast cancer. In Australia, the rate stands at 80 per cent, in Israel at 71 per cent and in Gaza at a measly 40 per cent. The occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel has seriously undermined healthcare services available to Palestinian women.

There are a number of factors contributing to the high mortality rates. There are some cultural and social factors that result in late detection, yet poverty, environmental issues, limited medical services and, above all, limited access to treatment outside of Gaza are largely additional contributing factors militating against adequate survival rates for the Palestinian women living under the occupation regime.

Most women in Gaza not only have difficulty accessing reliable information and early detection services for breast cancer but they find it almost impossible to obtain appropriate treatment. I find this personally very distressing. There is no radiation therapy available in the Gaza Strip. All Palestinians requiring radiation therapy must travel to Egypt, Jordan or Israel. Radiation therapy is unavailable primarily due to Israel’s objection to the importation of radioactive materials to the Gaza Strip. Israel reserves the right to act in whatever way it wants on any issue regarding the lives of Palestinian people, on the basis of national security, a concept deliberately manipulated to reach beyond reasonable security concerns and into well-crafted tight control of the Palestinian people’s lives and movements. The result is cruel and devastating.

Gaza has an unemployment rate of 45 per cent, and 50 per cent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Families therefore are unable to afford even the most basic medical tests associated with early detection. Sixty per cent of women with breast cancer in Gaza are diagnosed only after they are already at an advanced stage of the disease.

I had the opportunity to visit the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, which is the only remaining specialised care hospital for Palestinians in the occupied territories. During this visit, I met with women receiving treatment for late stage breast cancer. These were the luckier women, having been granted a permit to leave Gaza, one of the most densely populated places on the planet, in order to access treatment denied to other women, who die waiting within the confines that Israel imposes.

I recently watched Palestine’s first 3-D animation film, entitled Fatenah. This is a moving story which focuses on a woman from Gaza who has to deal with the heartbreak of being diagnosed with breast cancer, further complicated because it is set within the context of Israel’s crippling blockade. The animation shows that the Palestinian women carry the same emotions that any woman would carry when diagnosed with breast cancer but, unlike us here in Australia, they face an additional, overriding burden. The film explores the system of control and denial of access that is part of the Israeli blockade and occupation and is based on a true story. In this short film, we are also confronted with the death of a woman who has been waiting, having been denied what each and every woman has a right to access—appropriate treatment—because she has had the misfortune of being born a Palestinian in Gaza and living under a permit system of control.

I want to finish off with the words of Gideon Levy regarding the issue of breast cancer, from the same essay published in Haaretz. About the particular patient that he focuses on, he says that her story is not exceptional:

… even if part of it is particularly shocking; there are hundreds of Palestinian patients in a similar condition and every injustice always has a security excuse. There is terror, everyone is only carrying out orders and they are going by the book. But a book that prevents medical treatment to dying patients, hassles them and humiliates them, is a wicked book, and a society in which only the metal detector speaks is a sick society.

Helping the women and all the people of Palestine with issues related to ailments and sickness requires addressing the sickness associated with the crippling occupation. October, being breast cancer month, features a unique initiative that puts the spotlight on breast cancer by illuminating buildings, monuments and landmarks around the world in a blaze of pink.

Tonight I want to put the spotlight on the women of Gaza and occupied Palestine in the hope that they may one day live in a free society unburdened by an even more disturbing of sickness, that of the Israeli occupation.

Link to parliamentary Hansard