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Bearing life amid desolation: The plight of pregnant women and new mothers in Gaza

A woman feeds a child while Palestinians fleeing north Gaza move southward. (REUTERS)
22 Jan 2024 19:06

ISIDORA CIRIC (ABU DHABI)

In the midst of an ongoing war in the Gaza Strip, the plight of pregnant women and new mothers has reached alarming levels of concern. With limited access to healthcare services, constant threats of violence, and resources stretched thin, these mothers face unimaginable challenges and uncertainties during one of the most critical periods in their lives.

In an exclusive interview with Aletihad, Laila Baker, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Regional Director for Arab States warned that the current situation, already dire, is progressively getting worse.

Gaza currently has around 50,000 pregnant women, Baker shared, with 5,500 expected to give birth within a four-week period. Furthermore, there are 650,000 women of reproductive age (15 to 45 years old) facing health challenges due to disrupted access to healthcare and basic life necessities.

Before the current war, Gaza's healthcare system was already strained, making it challenging to provide safe deliveries and necessary medical equipment, Baker said. However, the situation has worsened dramatically since the war began.

Baker explained: "Almost the entire health system in the North has become completely dysfunctional, with over 50% of health facilities being deliberately or collaterally damaged or targeted."

Hospitals that remain operational are functioning at 200-300% of their capacity, Baker added, facing shortages of hygiene supplies, running water, and essential drugs, including anaesthesia for C-sections.

The World Health Organisation said that 15% of pregnant women in Gaza are likely to experience pregnancy or birth-related complications and need additional medical care post-delivery.

"Even minimal supplies like a pair of scissors, clean plastic sheet, soap, a piece of rope to tie off the umbilical cord, and something to wrap the baby in can mean the difference between life and death for the mother and child," Baker said.

The scarcity of resources and high demand for medical services due to severe overcrowding have placed doctors and healthcare providers in an agonising position.

"In circumstances where you are having to choose between someone who's bleeding to death and a C-section, it's oftentimes the woman trying to deliver who isn't prioritised," UNFPA Regional Director said.

Baker recounted a story of a heavily pregnant woman who came to a hospital with severe injuries. The doctor had to make a quick choice between treating her wounds or delivering the baby and she had to undergo a C-section without anaesthesia. In the end, the baby lived, but the mother died.

Even after undergoing C-sections without anaesthesia, new mothers have to leave the hospital almost immediately after giving birth, leaving them with nowhere to stay.

Baker painted a grim picture, stating: "There's no clean water. There are no beds. Women are giving birth in the corridors. They're having to pick up their newborn children after having a C-section without anaesthesia and go home an hour later."

As if the challenges were not daunting enough, Baker noted that pre- and post-natal care are virtually non-existent due to severe overcrowding, lack of medical supplies, and lack of medical personnel, which exposes mothers to severe health risks, especially in a region where infection rates are alarmingly high.

The ongoing food crisis in Gaza compounds the suffering of pregnant women, as they do not have sufficient access to clean water and baby formula.

Baker shared an example, recounting the plight of a colleague whose youngest son, just nine months old when the war began, lost five kilogrammes in weight due to malnutrition.

The situation has driven some mothers to feed their infants with contaminated water mixed with formula, an act of sheer desperation, she added.

Baker brought to attention the challenging conditions on the ground, saying: "We have supplies, we have people ready to go, including to the north. It is the continual bombardment and making it unsafe for people who provide service that makes it extremely difficult."

The horrifying consequences of the conflict are not fully known, as people remain trapped under rubble and buried without documentation, making it impossible to account for the true toll of the violence.

Baker stressed that a ceasefire is a “no brainer”, urging for a total cessation of Israeli hostilities to the suffering of the Palestinian population, upholding international humanitarian law, and protecting the well-being of civilians.

She stated: "This is about Palestinian people, human beings, who have the right to healthcare, the right to live in peace, of dignity, and to live on their land."

The UNFPA Regional Director commended the UAE and other international partners for their efforts in assisting the Gazan population, calling for additional efforts of member states to reach a complete ceasefire.

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