Analyzing the Implementation of International Humanitarian Law Towards Women in Palestine

The lack of water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities in the area impacted by conflict makes it difficult for civilians to live their lives.

We feel horrible every time we have to face our period. The sudden wave of sadness, bloating, cramps, headaches, and anger. Now, imagine experiencing the exact same symptoms, but this time without water, pads, or tampons. That’s exactly what women in Palestine have to deal with.

The lack of water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities in the area impacted by conflict makes it difficult for civilians to live their lives. They are not able to drink, shower, or carry out other hygiene activities. On the surface, there may be no difference between women and men who are affected by conflict. However, if we look deeply into it, armed conflict is a major threat to women. Through the example of the lack of water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities, women in conflict-affected areas face difficulties with their menstrual cycles. Access to clean water and sanitation is an important component for women in taking care of their menstrual hygiene. This devastating condition will also have an impact on pregnant women who are about to give birth or mothers who have babies. Thus, women and men are, frankly, affected by armed conflict differently.

According to the UN, many armed groups weaponize women to achieve their goals. In addition, girls and women are often forced to be sexual workers in exchange for food and other resources they need. Women as well are more vulnerable to experiencing violence during the armed conflict because this situation has allowed society to not pay attention to protecting women from gender-based violence. Gender inequality in society and gender-based violence are provoked by armed conflict; thus, women become more vulnerable when armed conflict breaks out (Gardam & Charlesworth, 2000). Men tend to experience violence in the form of direct violence because the majority of them usually take on the role of combatants, while women experience disproportionate violence in the form of sexual violence, forced displacement from refugee camps, and the economic crisis caused by the loss of access to basic rights to life.

Israel’s attacks on Palestinians, which have been launched since October 2023, have caused 5,900 Palestinians to be killed, and 1,300 of them are women (Human Rights Watch, 2023). For 55 years under Israeli occupation and more than 16 years living with fear in Gaza, women in Palestine have lived in a horrible humanitarian crisis. The humanitarian crisis in Palestine, which is getting more severe, has placed women in a very dangerous position. As reported by UN Women, severe damage in the Gaza Strip caused 493,000 women and girls to be forced to leave their homes. Moreover, almost 900 families in Palestine now are women-headed households because the previous head of the family was killed as a result of the genocide. With the absence of clean water and electricity, around 50,000 pregnant women in Palestine do not receive proper medical facilities during their labor, causing them to give birth in inhumane conditions. An estimated 180 pregnant women each day give birth without anesthesia, which is very annihilating. Recently, women’s situation has been worsened by the lack of access to pads and tampons, resulting in women in Palestine being forced to take period-delaying pills. They have no choice because, in the local market, period-delaying pills are easier to find than pads or tampons (Amer & Alsaafin, 2023). Even if period-delaying pills can cause serious health impacts, such as vaginal bleeding, they still consume them because they have no other choice. Women’s conditions in Palestine are also exacerbated by the patriarchal social structure in Palestine, which allows women to be overlooked in crises and post-humanitarian crisis reconstruction.

With no signs of a ceasefire possibility, women and girls in Palestine have been forced to survive in inhumane conditions. UN Women, assisted by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the World Food Programme (WFP), UNICEF, WHO, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and other women’s organizations, have attempted to implement the International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Referring to one of the principles of humanitarian action codified in the 1949 Geneva Convention, the non-discrimination principle indicates that all victims affected by conflict or humanitarian crises deserve protection without discrimination. The non-discrimination principles can also be interpreted as saying that a person’s status as a woman is not a justification for them to be less important in terms of protection. Continued in Article 12 of the Geneva Conventions Protocols I and II: “Women shall be treated with all consideration due to their sex,” which means women require more specific protective measures, paying attention to women’s lives in detail. The existence of specific articles that regulate protection for women in crisis does not mean that women are considered to have less capacity and resistance than men but indicates that women have their own needs that need to be taken seriously, such as menstruation, breastfeeding, and pregnancy. International Humanitarian Law (IHL) also attempts to protect women, girls, pregnant women, and mothers with small children. Furthermore, IHL regulates the placement of female prisoners of war who must be separated from male prisoners of war to reduce the number of cases of gender-based violence. With the high risk of women experiencing violence against women in humanitarian crises, Article 27 of the 1949 Geneva Convention IV on the Protection of Civil Society in Times of War explicitly addresses the obligation to protect women against any attack on their honor, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault.

Despite the existence of very coherent legal protection, violence against women and girls continues to occur in humanitarian crises and armed conflict. UN Women has provided humanitarian aid in the Israel-occupied Palestinian territories through responsive services to respond to gender-based violence cases, consisting of psychosocial assistance, legal assistance, and the construction of shelters. UN Women in Palestine has also provided food supplies to 14,716 women-headed households, financial support to women’s organizations in Palestine, cash and lifesaving assistance to women who were forced to be unemployed by Israel, as well as providing Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) throughout the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. Nevertheless, the situation that has worsened since the end of 2023 has limited the movement of women’s organizations in Palestine. In Gaza, two refugee shelters specifically for women have been forced to close, leaving three women’s shelters remaining on the West Bank (UN Women, 2023). Currently, UN Women and several organizational partners in Palestine are still trying to distribute emergency aid with the help of the volunteers on the site. UN Women and its partners have attempted to carry out humanitarian action from a gender perspective, referring to Article 12 of the Geneva Convention Protocols I and II, which emphasize the specific needs of women, and Article 27 of the Geneva Convention Protocol IV regarding protection for cases of violence against women in armed conflict.

The protection of women in humanitarian crises has been codified in International Humanitarian Law through the 1949 Geneva Convention and reaffirmed in UN Security Council Resolution 1325. Every party involved in war, armed conflict, or humanitarian crisis must comply with it. Even though UN Women and other women’s organizations maximized their potential to help women in Palestine, women in Palestine still suffer. No matter how hard the international community tries to protect and help women in Palestine, if Israel does not end the genocide and start the ceasefire, women will continue to suffer devastatingly. Moreover, current rising tensions in Palestine have made it harder to distribute medical supplies and other aid for women. Women in Palestine are forced to survive without the existence of water, sanitation, menstrual hygiene facilities, and even anesthesia. Even though the genocide committed by Israel against Palestinians affected all parties, it cannot be denied that the impact is gender biased. People suffer. Women and children suffer. Ceasefire now.

Aisya C. Daniswara
Aisya C. Daniswara
Daring and passionate undergraduate International Relations student at Gadjah Mada University. An avid learner of gender and international politics; literature; and all things social-political and cultural.