As the Israeli military operation in Rafah enters its fourth week, nearly one million people are displaced from southern Gaza into Deir Al-Balah and Khan Younis, and forced to live in desperate living conditions in extremely overcrowded shelters. After visiting southern and central Gaza, an International Rescue Committee (IRC) expert reveals that women and children are most at risk of violence, exploitation and abuse. 

Since the closure of the Rafah crossing earlier this month and the issuance of evacuation orders in the south and the north, the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate. Following the closure, aid workers, humanitarian aid and critically needed fuel are still not able to enter Gaza. Consequently, some aid programmes are currently suspended and relocated to other areas, hindering essential humanitarian activities including protection services whilst vulnerable groups face increasing risks.

Ulrike Julia Wendt, IRC’s Emergency Child Protection Coordinator who has just returned from Gaza, stated:

“I have worked in crisis and conflict zones around the world, but the scale of the crisis in Gaza is unprecedented. The situation in Gaza differs drastically from other conflict zones. The constant airstrikes create a pervasive threat with no safe spaces to run to, making it a uniquely terrifying situation. What struck me most when I arrived in Gaza and drove through neighborhoods was the sheer number of children on the streets, and so many of them without shoes. This is because all the schools have been shut down due to incessant Israeli bombardments. With schools closed, children are at an increased risk of exploitation, abuse, and violence. Put simply, they are not only being denied their childhood, but are also experiencing extreme trauma.

“There have been reports of adolescent-headed households, where groups of children who have lost their families are trying to survive on their own in an environment where market prices are extremely high, and cash is scarce. These children have nowhere to seek basic necessities. Moreover, critical items such as sanitary pads, dignity and menstrual health kits for women and girls, and recreational materials for children are either denied entry, unavailable or very expensive locally.

“The risk of gender-based violence (GBV), including intimate partner violence and sexual exploitation and abuse, is enormous, particularly in overcrowded shelters, where stories of women and adolescent girls facing violence are common, especially with the shortage in cash that is worsening living conditions. Children, especially girls, face risk of being sent out to earn money without their caregivers knowing how they obtained it. Young girls face increased risks of early and forced marriages. If the war goes long and education remains interrupted with no guidance, many will grow up without understanding their health and rights and potentially leading to the normalisation of GBV. These protection risks highlight the urgent need for intervention and support, as well as the creation of safe spaces, to prevent harm to young girls’ sexual and reproductive health.

“The immediate need is for shelter and safe spaces where women and children, especially unaccompanied children, can receive support including child protection services, assistance related to GBV and psychosocial support. The poor hygiene conditions and lack of accessible food are critical issues, but the trauma experienced by Palestinians, especially children, is unimaginable. Despite everything, it’s inspiring to see how the community is coping and how volunteers are stepping up to help."

The IRC is currently working with partners Juzoor for Health and Social Development, Anera and Nafs for Empowerment to provide psychosocial support to children affected by the war in Gaza. The IRC will scale up work with community members and partners to provide immediate protection and mental health and psychosocial support to children and women at highest risk, especially unaccompanied children and survivors of GBV. Group mental health and psychosocial support sessions, including ‘parenting in times of crises,’ will be offered to children, caregivers, and women. The IRC will fill gaps where partners are not present. To reduce protection risks, financial and material support will be given to vulnerable women and children.

The IRC is calling for an immediate and permanent ceasefire, alongside a significant scale-up of aid efforts, to save and protect the lives of civilians in Gaza. We urge all warring parties to adhere to International Humanitarian Law, release all hostages and for Israel to provide unfettered access to humanitarian assistance.