Women and girls in Gaza struggle for survival
Close to 493,000 women and girls are being displaced from their homes in Gaza, and are facing high risks of gender-based violence, food insecurity and psychological trauma, according to UN Women.
Following the October 7th attack on Israel by Hamas and the ensuing strikes by Israeli Armed forces, United Nations organisations have revealed the devastating impact of the crisis on women and girls in Gaza.
In its latest report, UN Women says that the eruption of violence and destruction has created a largely displaced population of women and girls. Hundreds of thousands have fled their homes in the north of Gaza, after Israel issued an evacuation order in preparation for an expected ground invasion. As of 21 October, 42% of housing units in Gaza were reported destroyed or damaged, and more than 900 widows have become heads of households, numbers that will keep increasing without a ceasefire. This situation creates unique, urgent needs and vulnerabilities that must be recognised and addressed, the organisation says.
Food insecurity in Gaza
Israel’s strict blockade on Gaza has cut off vital resources, and people in Gaza are facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
The UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reports that the electricity cuts have disrupted food security by affecting refrigeration, and most bakeries are unable to operate due to the shortage of essential ingredients, such as wheat flour.
The average water consumption in Gaza for drinking, cooking and hygiene is currently estimated at three litres per day per person, with people consuming more and more water from unsafe sources.
“UN Women has called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and unimpeded access for humanitarian aid including food, water, fuel, and health supplies that are critical for the survival of women and girls in the Gaza Strip,” said Sarah Hendriks, UN Women Deputy Executive Director.
Due to the shortage of food, pregnant and lactating women are at risk of malnutrition, increasing their chances to contract illnesses such as anaemia, preeclampsia and haemorrhage, which can lead to death for both mothers and babies, says the UNRWA. The organisation also raises concern about the survival of newborns as besieged hospitals lack baby food and enriched formulas.
It also reveals that the displaced population is having one meal a day and one shower a week to cope with shortages.
Maternal and reproductive healthcare “a distant dream”
Among the 2.2 million affected population in Gaza, 1 in 4 are women and girls of reproductive age, which represents around 572,000 people in need of urgent access to reproductive health care and supplies. “It’s very difficult to manage my menstruation in these conditions, I can smell myself and I am avoiding being close to people,” a displaced woman told the UNRWA.
According to the UNFPA, 50,000 women are currently pregnant in Gaza. Among them, 5,522 are expected to deliver in the next month and over 840 may experience a child-birth related complication. Being under siege, they are facing extreme challenges in accessing obstetric care.
The World Health Organisation reports that 33 of 50 of the Ministry of Health’s Primary Health Care facilities are closed, 11% of hospitals are not functioning and 23 ambulances have been affected by attacks. There is also a critical shortage of drugs and medical supplies. Gaza’s main hospital in the south of the Strip alerted that life saving operations would stop by Wednesday 25th because of fuel shortages.
“Access to primary healthcare services has become a distant dream,” a midwife at Al Shifa hospital told the UNFPA. “Many pregnant women are now internally displaced in schools, lacking basic essentials like clothing and hygiene items, privacy or access to bathrooms.”
Sleeping on the floor, in a school, with barely any food or basic hygiene items, a displaced pregnant woman told the UNFPA: “I couldn’t help but think about how my baby was feeling with every explosion. But every kick from my unborn child was giving me hope and strength”.
Higher risk of gender-based violence
Tensions are rising in the shelters as they get overcrowded. The lack of privacy, safety, and supplies increase the risks of domestic violence. As men are not able to fulfil their traditional role of providing and protecting their families, it negatively affects their perceptions of identity and worthiness, increasing intrafamilial tensions and putting women at risk of violence, the UNRWA explains.
There is also a higher risk of child marriages. In 2021, 23% of all registered marriages in Gaza included girls under 18 years of age. The escalation will exacerbate the situation, the organisation warns, as parents are already struggling with limited resources for their families, and also seek to protect young girls from the risks of sexual violence from strangers.
The worsening impact on mental health
Mental health data collected by UNRWA is alarming. It shows that the most sought-after service provided by their social workers is psychosocial support. Women represent 54% of those seeking psychological help, revealing high levels of distress. Parents at the emergency shelters have reported increased levels of fear, anxiety, insecurity, and panic attacks among children – some have stopped talking.
Psychological trauma adds to an already dire state for mental health: due to previous conflicts, 98% of women already feared for their safety, and depression levels were high due to a deep sense of hopelessness as well as unemployment.
“The situation is growing more dire by the hour,” Antonio Guterres said at a UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday. The UN Chief is calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire “to ease epic suffering, make the delivery of aid easier and safer and facilitate the release of hostages.”
Guterres said nothing could justify the deliberate killing and kidnapping of civilians, or the Hamas rocket launches against civilian targets, but that it was important to recognise the attacks by Hamas “did not happen in a vacuum.”
“The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation”, he said. “But the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas. And those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”