Boy in the rubble in Gaza. Credit: Salah Hosny
Boy in the rubble in Gaza. Credit: Salah Hosny

The war in Gaza is having a catastrophic impact on children, stripping them of their rights

I spend the whole night holding on to the children. They keep saying: ‘Mama, when will this be over? Are we going to die tonight?’

a mother supported by SOS Children’s Villages in Rafah.

Since October 7 2023, life has changed beyond recognition for the 2.2 million people living in the Gaza Strip. While children are always the innocent victims of any violent conflict or crisis, the impact of this war on children is unprecedented.

As the violence continues, the death toll rises, with over 29,000 people now reported dead in the Gaza Strip, including 12,500 children. At the same time, an estimated 17,000 Palestinian children are unaccompanied or separated from their parents. The creation of a new acronym – WCNSF, which stands for Wounded Child, No Surviving Family – is a sobering reminder of the heavy price children are paying, and will continue to pay, for this brutal war.

The stories we hear about children who have been caught up in the violence and who have had family members killed bring these statistics to life. Children like three-year-old Salam*, who lost her parents in a bombardment on her house in Khan Yunis. She was pulled from under the rubble and taken to a hospital in Deir al Balah, where she was cared for by a doctor and his sister for three weeks.

When Khaled, a psychologist at SOS Children’s Villages Rafah, arrived to take Salam to where she could be cared for long-term, she was crying and screaming. He explains:

When I first met her, I was trying to calm her down and reassure her she’s safe now, and she said, ‘say whatever you want to say, but do not say you’re going to take me to my parents. I saw them dying in front of my eyes.’

The rights of children, as listed in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, are being violated daily. When the most basic of rights – such as the right to life, survival and protection during war and conflict – are being completely disregarded, there is little hope that other rights will be respected.
Even when the war finally ends, it is unclear how many children and young people will be able to access stable education, healthcare, nutrition and other necessities, yet alone have opportunities to play, relax and just ‘be children’.

Severe impacts on children’s physical and mental health

The physical and mental health of children, young people and those caring for them is deteriorating. Many children are now not only at risk of death or injury, but increasingly of malnutrition, with one in six children reportedly already malnourished.

The long-term impacts of an entire generation suffering from extreme trauma and poor-mental health can also not be understated. Exposure to violent conflict can significantly impact a child’s development, with effects that endure into adulthood. Children without parental care are particularly vulnerable to these impacts.

As Ghada Hirzallah, National Director of SOS Children’s Villages Palestine, comments:

The impact on children in particular, is profound. Daily struggles for basic needs, exposure to violence, and the constant threat to their sense of security shape their daily lives – and this is having a long-lasting impact on their mental health.

A colleague based in Rafah expands:

Thousands of children and young people in Gaza have gone through extremely distressing events, like displacement, child-family separation, death of a family member, violence…causing severe psychological effects.

Psychologists working in SOS Children’s Villages Rafah are holding one-on-one sessions with the children they care for, to help them deal with this painful period and reduce the risk of having a psychological shock in the future. As one says:

Children often ask us during the sessions questions like ‘Why was my brother killed? What was his fault?’ We deal with these questions with utmost professionalism to protect them from any setbacks.

A plea for peace

Perhaps most powerful of all, is a plea for peace we received from Miriam*, a 20-year-old nursing student and member of SOS Children’s Villages Palestine’s youth council.

On behalf of the youth in the West Bank and Gaza, and in light of the difficult conditions young people are living in, especially in Gaza, what we ask for is to live in peace and security, away from war that destroys dreams, futures, and plans – whatever they may be.

We pray to God that the war will stop, that peace will return, that life will return with its dreams and aspirations for children and youth, and that morale will remain high to face the challenges. We all hope the war will stop and that we will emerge safely from it.

Three months ago, youth were attending their universities in Gaza, carrying with them all their aspirations for a bright tomorrow. Overnight, the universities were destroyed, and with them hope was lost.

What urgently needs to happen

As public concern increases, and the calls for a permanent ceasefire grow louder, it is crucial that we maintain the pressure those with power to do more to protect civilians – and in particular the children and young people in the most vulnerable positions. There must be:

  1. Urgent protection and provision of basic services to children who have lost their families or have been separated from family members, and children at imminent risk of losing parental care
  2. Immediate protection of civilians and respect for International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law
  3. Increase in the vital delivery of aid and humanitarian access
  4. Prioritised provision of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support

Only with these things in place, can we begin to see an end to the suffering.

*Names changed to protect identities