Experts Concerned for Plight of Women and Children Civilians in Gaza

“We have seen evidenced once more that women and children are the first victims of conflict,” said U.N. Women executive director Sima Bahous, “and that our duty to seek peace is a duty to them.”

A woman in Rafah, Gaza, on Jan. 18, 2024. (Ahmad Hasaballah / Getty Images)

In a 15-2 ruling, the International Court of Justice (ICJ)—which is the U.N.’s high court—ordered Israel to do more to help civilians and to prevent acts of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. “The court is acutely aware of the extent of the human tragedy that is unfolding in the region and is deeply concerned about the continuing loss of life and human suffering,” said Court President Joan Donoghue, who read the ruling.

Donoghue also ordered the immediate release of hostages taken by Hamas militants during the invasion of Israeli territory on Oct. 7. During the attack, approximately 250 people were taken hostage, and today, more than 100 hostages, including at least 14 women, are believed to still be held captive in Gaza at the hands of Hamas. Experts remain gravely concerned for the safety and well-being of hostages still being held.

The terrorist group raped and mutilated women on Oct. 7—which President Biden called “worst atrocity committed against the Jewish people in a single day since the Holocaust” in a statement ahead of Jan 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Many suspect the sexual abuse is ongoing. Pramila Patten, the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, said the international body will begin investigating Hamas’ widespread use of sexual violence.

“We have heard shocking accounts of unconscionable sexual violence during the attacks that have led to calls such as U.N. Women’s for accountability, justice and support for all those affected,” said U.N. Women executive director Sima Bahous. “We unequivocally condemn all acts of sexual and gender-based violence wherever, whenever, and against whomever they are perpetrated. I call again for accountability for all those affected by the Oct. 7 attacks.”

U.N. Women recently released a report documenting the gendered impact of the crisis in Gaza. During the 100-plus days since the Oct. 7 attack, “women and girls make up the majority of those killed, wounded and displaced,” said Bahous. “Our Gender Alert estimates that some 1 million women and girls are displaced in Gaza, two mothers killed every hour, while around 10,000 children have lost their fathers. … These are people, not numbers, and we are failing them. That failure, and the generational trauma inflicted on the Palestinian people over these 100 days and counting, will haunt us all for generations to come.”

According to the report:

More than 24,620 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip and more than 1.9 million people have been displaced, including almost 1 million women and girls. The entire population of Gaza—roughly 2.2 million people—face acute food insecurity. …

In the period from 2008 to Oct. 7, 2023, the U.N. documented the killings of 6,542 Palestinian civilians in hostilities, with women and girls making up less than 14 percent of that figure. However, since Oct. 7, women and children have constituted about 70 percent of the region’s deaths.

Gaza’s only two women’s shelters, both in Gaza City, are now closed, and telecommunications and electricity blackouts severely restrict the ability to provide services remotely. The number of households where a widowed woman has the sole responsibility to feed, protect and provide for her family may have surged by at least 3,000, as men have been killed throughout Gaza; those deaths may have also resulted in at least 10,000 children losing their fathers.

The only functional maternity hospital in northern Gaza expected to run out of fuel, with delivery of further fuel severely challenged by insecurity.

“Two weeks after the war started on my due date, I went to the hospital knowing that I was risking my life and that of my long-awaited baby,” said a woman quoted in the report. “My doctor decided to use a private clinic that was not fully equipped as it was the only solution available at that time. I risked my life and I hope that I didn’t bring my baby to this world for him to just be killed for no reason.”

The report continued:

With acute food insecurity at unprecedented levels, women and girls are expected to be hit the hardest, as women tend to when access to food is restricted. Pregnant and lactating women are at even higher health and malnutrition risks, both for themselves and their babies.

Women’s rights organizations continue to operate despite the hostilities, but many staff members are themselves forcibly displaced, and the majority of their physical infrastructure has been destroyed. Ten out of 12 women’s organizations in the Gaza Strip reported being at least partly operational in November 2023.

“It is now more than 100 days since the horrors of the Hamas attacks on Israel of October 7 and the horrors that have followed, especially in Gaza,” said Bahous. “Since then, we have seen evidenced once more that women and children are the first victims of conflict and that our duty to seek peace is a duty to them. Without change, these last 100 days will be mere prelude to the next 100.”

U.N. Women is also taking action to help meet the needs of Gazans on the ground:

U.N. Women has sought to address the crisis as part of its six-month response framework. Under that rubric, U.N. Women has co-chaired the national-level Gender in Humanitarian Action Working Group and the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Network, and has worked to coordinate the delivery of aid, ensuring that women’s needs are taken into account in the humanitarian response.

On the ground, through a partnership with the U.N. World Food Program, U.N. Women has provided emergency food assistance to over 14,000 women-headed households, representing one-third of all women-headed households in Gaza.

U.N. Women has supported the distribution of 14,000 dignity kits, 2,300 winter clothes packages, 3,200 women’s kits, and 3,793 children’s kits in partnership with the Egyptian Red Crescent and the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organization. With local partners in Gaza, U.N. Women also provided recreational activities for 2,500 children and mental health support services via mobile mental health clinics to 316 women and girls, as well as and 94 men and boys.

But such aid is far from sufficient. All organizations surveyed in the alert reported that their most pressing needs were additional funding, strengthened partnerships, and investments in safety and security. The displacement of nearly 2 million people has caused intense pressure on scarce food, energy and water supplies. And as the war continues, individuals’ coping mechanisms are rapidly eroding.

In addition to the reproductive and basic health concerns outlined above, the U.N. agency for Palestinians, UNRWA, has warned that more than 690,000 women and teenage girls have almost no access to menstrual hygiene products. “UNRWA distributes sanitary napkins, but like everything else we distribute, it is a drop in the bucket compared to the needs of those in Gaza,” said spokesperson Tamara Alrifai in a tweet.

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