Israel's war in Gaza leaves hundreds of women widowed without support

The UN estimates that more than 2,700 women have become the head of their household since October 7

Palestinian women cry where a relative is believed to be trapped in debris following Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 21, 2023, amid continuing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas.  AFP
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Fifty-year old Hanan never imagined she would be taking care of her five daughters and three sons without her husband of 25 years. An Israeli air strike in Gaza on October 16 abruptly made her a lone parent with eight children.

Her husband, Muhammed, was killed across the street from their home in the Al Sabra neighbourhood of Gaza. He had gone to buy bread for the family.

Two months later, his children and wife are huddled in a dilapidated warehouse within the Al Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza, wondering if they will survive the war, having endured months of Israeli attacks on the enclave.

“Everything is shrouded in black. I feel utterly lost without him,” Hanan told The National.

She recalls how, upon receiving the news of her husband's death, she felt her “heart shatter with pain”.

She experienced an overwhelming sense of grief and a sense of being lost without her husband, but said she felt obliged to stay strong for her children.

“My eldest son is 22 years old, and my youngest daughter is only seven. Managing the challenges of raising and protecting them alone is an incredibly difficult task for me,” she said.

According to the Gaza Ministry of Health, which is run by Hamas, more than 20,000 Palestinians have been killed since October 7.

The UN said that as of December 19, about 5,150 women have been killed since October 7. It estimates that 2,784 women have “become widows, and possibly new heads of households, following their male partner's death”.

This loss of the male head of the family, according to the UN, leaves women feeling “an acute sense of vulnerability in relation to the safety and security needs of both themselves and their female family members”.

The women that have survived face additional challenges of the patriarchal social, legal and cultural norms held by some in Gaza that assume women to be under the protection and guardianship of men.

Women without a home

Out of nearly 1.9 million Gazans who have been internally displaced, UN Women estimates that 951,490 are women and girls.

Hanan is one of those. She has been forced to seek shelter in two camps, before finally renting the warehouse she is now staying in with her family.

“We were displaced to the Al Maghazi camp following orders from the Israeli occupation authorities instructing residents of northern Gaza to relocate to the south of the Wadi,” she said

“The journey of displacement was both gruelling and terrifying. I could only manage to bring along our identification cards and a scant amount of clothes for my children,” she said.

“I took my children to the UNRWA school in the Nuseirat camp, but the number of displaced people there was overwhelming. So, I had to search for another shelter. This challenge was compounded by the absence of my husband, Muhammed. If he were alive, he would have, at the very least, provided us with shelter.”

When she reached Al Maghazi camp, the family of nine could not find space at the UNRWA school either, and so, in her despair, Hanan sought the assistance of one of the camp’s residents.

“With his help, I managed to rent a warehouse that lacked even the most basic necessities of life. It doesn’t have a bathroom, and as a result, my children and I have to use the bathroom at the nearby mosque.”

According to the UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the overcrowded conditions in shelters and the lack of food and other essentials have put additional strains on Gazans and increased the risk of gender-based violence.

Prolonged power cuts, water and cooking gas scarcity have added additional domestic burdens on women who are given the job of providing food.

“Obtaining food is another significant challenge. Registering as a displaced person at a nearby UNRWA school granted me a food coupon, but it falls short of satisfying our hunger. Occasionally, people show compassion for my situation and offer some food,” said Hanan.

“As winter set in, the situation became even more dire. I lack winter clothes for my children. There aren't enough mattresses, and we don't have blankets to shield us from the cold and rain that enters the warehouse during storms,” she said.

'Brutal and unforgiving'

Forty-seven-year old Halima lost her husband, Nasser, her 21-year-old son Karim, and her 13-year-old son Salim, in two separate Israeli air attacks.

Halima recounts how she watched her sons bleed for hours before they finally succumbed to their injuries, as ambulances were unable to reach her house in time to help them. Halima lost her husband, Nasser, in a separate Israeli air strike on a supermarket in Rafah.

“Nasser had gone to buy milk for my two-year-old daughter Malak when the occupation attacked the crowded supermarket, I was told.”

When Israeli forces ordered the residents of northern Gaza to flee to the south, Halima and her family initially resisted. “We had no idea where to go in the south, we do not have relatives or friends there. So, we made the decision to stay in our home.”

However, Halima's family finally fled south after Israeli bombings killed her husband and sons, and severely damaged her house in Beit Lahia.

Halima and her three daughters were displaced through a so-called “safe” corridor – a journey she describes as “resembling horror movies.”

“Soldiers were positioned in front of us, tanks pointed in our direction. We moved in groups, reminiscent of the Day of Resurrection. We walked for nearly nine hours and later rode a donkey cart, before finally reaching the displacement tents in Rafah.

“Inside the tent, conditions are catastrophic, inhumane, and unfit for human life. There is a severe shortage of water, food, and basic necessities.

“The war itself is brutal and unforgiving, but enduring it within a displacement tent with my three daughters after losing my husband and sons makes it even more brutal,” she said

“I struggle to provide even basic necessities like sanitary pads for my daughters. I fear venturing out to the market, worried that I might be killed, leaving my daughters as orphans.”

Last month, UNFPA reported that more than 690,000 women and girls have limited access to menstrual hygiene products.

“Nasser worked as a clothing merchant, but the occupation bombed his shop in Beit Lahia. I am uncertain how I will manage to provide for my daughters and meet their needs, even if a ceasefire is declared.

“Losing Nasser equates to losing my entire life. I am now left alone, homeless, and displaced with three daughters: Yara, 23, Remas, 17, and Malak,” she said.

This article was produced in collaboration with Egab.

Updated: December 23, 2023, 9:21 AM