Specific risks facing women and girls in Palestine

Women and girls in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) face discrimination and risk of gender-based violence (GBV), including early/forced marriage, intimate partner/family violence, sexual harassment, rape, incest, denial of resources, psychological abuse and risk of sexual exploitation and abuse. Factors accounting for the risk have included decades of Israeli occupation and conflict-related violence, prevailing traditional cultural norms in Palestinian society, and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic and the May 2021 escalation.

Some 10 per cent of households report that women and girls avoid areas near Israeli settlements, checkpoints, community areas and markets, and public transportation because they feel unsafe. Some 31 per cent of households in the West Bank and 19 per cent in Gaza are concerned about the safety and security of girls, while 24 per cent and 17 per cent in the two areas respectively are concerned about the safety and security of women.
The disproportionate impact of these contextual factors on women and girls is underpinned by socio-cultural patriarchal norms, which continue to undermine women and girls’ rights.

Furthermore, COVID-19 and the May 2021 escalation in conflict resulted in an increase in reported GBV cases. SAWA, an emergency helpline, reported a 135 per cent increase in caseload in May 2021 compared with May 2020.

The context in occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) has a detrimental impact on employment, income, and educational opportunities, forcing women and girls, including those with disabilities, to adopt negative coping strategies that expose them to further exploitation and abuse, including exposure to higher risks of sexual exploitation and abuse.

With COVID-19 lockdowns, gender-based cyber violence is a significant risk, particularly for women and girls who access remote online services aimed at responding to GBV. 

According to the latest available Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics survey on violence, which predates the COVID-19 pandemic, 29.4 per cent of (married or previously married) women between the ages of 18 and 64 experienced violence in the 12 months preceding the survey – 37.5 per cent in Gaza and 24.3 per cent in the West Bank. Of those, 56.6 per cent experienced psychological violence, 17.8 per cent physical violence, 8.8 per cent sexual violence, 32.5 per cent social violence, 41.1 per cent economic violence, while eight per cent experienced the emerging issue of cyber violence.

The prevalence of child marriage within the oPt is at 24 per cent. Although, in general, child early forced marriage seems to be declining, an increase has been perceived in certain areas, particularly parts of Gaza and isolated parts of Area C and East Jerusalem. 

Women and girls with disabilities, Bedouin women, internally displaced women and women and girls living in refugee camps are particularly at risk of violence. Being physically cut off from employment prospects and financially dependent on partners leaves them with few options for supporting themselves financially, and therefore they are more likely to marry, and not to report intimate partner violence if it means losing their only source of financial support.

Women and girls in communities impacted by conflict and displacement, i.e. Gaza, Area C and East Jerusalem, tend to suffer from higher incidence of GBV, including more frequent incidents of intimate partner violence, sexual abuse and exploitation, and forced marriage. These communities also tend to be characterized by limited availability of and access to multi-sectoral protection services. The areas with the lowest percentage of households reporting availability of psycho-social services in case of GBV were East Jerusalem (8.9 per cent), Gaza (31.6 per cent) and Area C (38.8 per cent).

Women and girls with disabilities face additional barriers that limit their access to services, putting them at additional risk. In Gaza, 58 per cent of persons with disabilities lack information about GBV prevention and response, including how and where to access relevant assistance and services during emergencies.

Access to services that respond to GBV – already compromised throughout the oPt by the occupation and COVID-19 restrictions – has been weakened by the May 2021 escalation, particularly in Gaza, where in-person services responding to GBV, such as legal aid, psycho-social support, GBV case management, and other community education/awareness raising activities were suspended during the hostilities. All governmental institutions were closed, including the safe shelter facility and the women’s detention facility. The shelter and female detention facility was subsequently reopened, but in the meantime, GBV survivors were exposed to further harm while being forced to remain at home. For girls under 18 years of age who are still displaced, there is a continued need to facilitate access to psycho-social support services, in order for them to feel safe and have access to private spaces.

* The above is based on the Humanitarian Needs Overview 2022; for a full list of sources see footnotes 53-63 therein.

What is the humanitarian community doing to mitigate such risks?

The humanitarian community provides multi-sectoral responses to GBV survivors, including economic empowerment; specific health, mental health and psycho-social services; gender-sensitive assistance related to hygiene and sanitation, like the construction of gender-segregated school toilets; sheltering services; emergency services, such the provision of dignity kits and cash vouchers; legal aid representation; referral to trained GBV responders and strengthening the national referral system; and efforts to raise awareness and increase the engagement of people, including men and boys, in combatting GBV. For more information, see the Humanitarian Response Plan 2022.