Women and children account for roughly 70 per cent of people killed in the war in Gaza, with two mothers killed every hour since hostilities erupted more than 100 days ago, according to a UN Women report published on Friday.
The report, ‘Gender Alert: The Gendered Impact of the Crisis in Gaza’ examines the gendered impact of the conflict, which has left more than 23,000 Palestinians dead, according to Gazan health authorities, about 16,000 of whom are women or children.
“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. We are failing them,” UN Women Executive Director Sima Bahous said in a statement issued alongside the report.
“That failure, and the generational trauma inflicted on the Palestinian people over these 100 days and counting, will haunt all of us for generations to come,” she warned.
UN Women also reiterated deep concern over the accounts of unconscionable sexual violence and other gender-based violence during the Hamas-led attacks against Israel on 7 October that sparked the conflict.
The agency called for accountability, justice and support for all those affected and for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages.
UN Women said the Gaza conflict “is fundamentally a protection crisis for women” at a time when nowhere in the enclave is safe.
Of the 1.9 million people now displaced, close to a million are women and girls, and the “impossible decisions” they have to make regarding whether to evacuate – when and how as well as where to go – “are entrenched with gender differentiated fears and experiences”, given risks of attacks and harassment while on the move.
UN Women further estimated that at least 3,000 women may have become widows and heads of households, and at least 10,000 children may now be fatherless. As a result, more women fear families will resort to desperate coping mechanisms such as early marriage.
Meanwhile, women’s rights organizations continue to operate amidst the crisis. In November, UN Women conducted a rapid survey of 12 women-led organizations and one youth-led group which found that most – 83 per cent – were at least partially operating, focused mainly on the emergency response.
However, less than one per cent of funding under the 2023 Flash Appeal for Gaza has directly gone to women’s groups.
Staying the course
The report is part of UN Women’s six-month response plan for Gaza, which includes providing emergency food assistance to over 14,000 female-headed households and supporting the distribution of items requested by women on the ground such as clothing, sanitary products and baby formula.
The agency is also partnering with women-led organizations to deliver gender responsive services for gender-based violence, establishing women-led protection and response committees in shelters and convening regular consultations with women’s organizations to discuss the challenges they face.
In Gaza, the loss of life and severe humanitarian needs are at unprecedented levels, in a context where needs were already dire prior to the current escalation. In January 2023, it was estimated that approximately 2.1 million Palestinians across the Occupied Palestinian Territory required some form of humanitarian assistance, of whom 49.2 per cent were women.
According to the report, as of early 2024, the majority of the population of Gaza has been forcibly displaced on foot multiple times. Displacement exacerbates people’s vulnerability, erodes their coping mechanisms, and impacts them differently based on gender. Since the ground operation started in Gaza, it has been reported that men faced arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance.
The report quotes media reports, according to which, while on the displacement journey, women also faced risks of arbitrary detention and harassment. For families with elderly relatives or family members with disabilities who simply cannot move, it is women who disproportionately stay behind as caregivers.
In severely overcrowded shelters, in the streets amid the rubble, women and girls are seeking safety from airstrikes under unspeakable conditions. Yet, nowhere and no one is safe in Gaza. Once displaced, families take shelter where they can, including at facilities designated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) or with host families, who also face security risks themselves.
The report says that as the war continues, people in Gaza are experiencing an almost complete erosion of individual and collective coping mechanisms. Tensions within families and communities are increasing, which in turn increases the risks of gender-related protection concerns, including gender-based violence.
“The crisis also impacts power dynamics and gender relations, which must be taken into account in the delivery of humanitarian aid,” the report says. “Loss of families in full or in part, loss of parents or a breadwinner, and loss of home and community lead to changes in family formation including from predominantly nuclear and extended families to super-extended families, which impact gender relations, roles, and dynamics.”
The report says that women increasingly fear that, in light of food shortages, school closures, and loss of educational opportunities, families will resort to desperate coping mechanisms including early marriage, especially given the high number of young girls who have lost one or both parents.
Image: UN Women