Women bearing the brunt of Israel-Gaza conflict: UN expert

Geneva, 20 November, 2023.- Women and children have disproportionately borne the brunt of the conflict in Israel and Gaza, a UN expert said today.

“While these atrocities affect both women and men, their impact is gendered and disproportionately affects women,” said Reem Alsalem, UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences.

“Women and girls of all ages are among those held hostage and killed by Hamas, as well as those injured and killed by Israel’s indiscriminate bombardment of the Gaza Strip,” Alsalem said.

She noted that for decades, the Israeli occupation and the denial of self-determination have subjected Palestinian women to an onslaught of multiple layers of egregious and systematic discrimination and violence.

“Since 7 October, the assault on Palestinian women’s dignity and rights has taken on new and terrifying dimensions, as thousands have become victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity and an unfolding genocide,” the expert said. She noted that, as of 3 November, an estimated 67 per cent of those killed in Gaza were women and children. “Women killed in this conflict have come from all walks of life, and included journalists, medical staff, United Nations personnel and members of civil society organisations,” she said.

The Special Rapporteur expressed alarm at the genocidal and dehumanising rhetoric about the Palestinian people, including women and children, by top Israeli Government officials and public figures calling them “children of darkness”. Palestinians as a whole have reportedly been described “human animals” and calls have been made to inflict on them a second Nakba. “Such statements make the Israeli Government’s intention to destroy the Palestinian people, in whole or in part, absolutely and consistently clear,” she said.

“Israel’s continued assault on the reproductive rights of Palestinian women and their new-borns has been relentless and is particularly alarming,” Alsalem said.

“While all women and girls affected by this conflict have suffered, it has been particularly devastating for mothers who have lost multiple children, witnessed them being maimed and gravely injured, or don’t know their whereabouts,” she added.

She noted reports by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UN agencies that 117 attacks on Gaza’s health infrastructure since 7 October have resulted in half of Gaza’s hospitals currently not functioning and the closure of 64 per cent of primary health care centres; and that an estimated 50,000 pregnant women in Gaza are expected to give birth in increasingly dire conditions, including 5,500 women due to give birth in the next 30 days, resulting in more than 180 women a day being forced to give birth in inhumane, degrading and dangerous conditions. With fuel, medicine, water and hospital supplies rapidly diminishing or running out, pregnant women face the likelihood of giving birth without anaesthesia, sanitary precautions or, if necessary, surgical intervention. It is estimated that at least 15 per cent of these births have complications requiring basic or comprehensive obstetric care. Several women are reported to have died before or during childbirth. Furthermore, and according to UNFPA, over 690,000 menstruating women and girls have limited access to menstrual hygiene products.

Alsalem warned that the reproductive violence inflicted by Israel on Palestinian women, newborn babies, infants, and children could be qualified as violations of the human right to life under Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and as acts of genocide under Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention of Genocide, several articles of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and Article 6 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, including “imposing measures intended to prevent births within a group”. “States must prevent and punish such acts in accordance with their responsibilities under the Genocide Convention,” she said.

“Four hundred and twenty Palestinian children are killed or injured every day in Gaza, according to the WHO, or one child every 10 minutes,” the expert said. “These atrocities are grave assaults on the reproductive health and rights, physical integrity and dignity of women and their children,” she said, recalling that such violations are prohibited by the Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions, including Common Article 3, as they may amount to torture and other forms of ill-treatment.

The Special Rapporteur expressed concern about reports of sexual violence that may have occurred since 7 October committed by State and non-State actors against Israelis and Palestinians. “Reports of sexual violence must be verified, thoroughly investigated and those responsible must be held accountable. Incitements to commit such violence must also stop,” she said.

If these atrocities continue, the credibility of international law and the global framework laid down by Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security may suffer a tremendous blow that will be difficult to recover from,” the expert said. “Governments that prioritise gender equality and women’s rights in their foreign policy have not only failed Palestinian and Israeli women but have sent a message that women’s lives and rights in conflict situations are expendable,” the expert said.

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