As we approach International Women's Day, Pregnant women in Gaza face conditions “like a hundred years ago”

March 6th, 2024: As the world marks International Women’s Day, pregnant women and new mothers in Gaza are facing a constant struggle to keep themselves and their babies alive amidst life-threatening shortages of food, water and medical care.

Islamic Relief staff in Gaza report pregnant women enduring C-sections without anesthetic or painkillers, newborn infants starving to death, and a shortage of menstrual hygiene materials leading to women and girls developing infections as they resort to using any scraps of cloth or torn clothing they can find.  

Fatima*, an aid worker with an Islamic Relief partner organization in Gaza, says: “Pregnancy now is like women used to have it 100 years ago, without medical care, checkups, scans or good nutrition. Many women I know have had miscarriages and problems due to the lack of medical care.”  

There are around 50,000 pregnant women in Gaza and every day about 180 women give birth in unimaginable conditions. With the health system under systematic Israeli attack, two thirds of hospitals and nearly 80% of healthcare facilities are now completely shut down and pregnant women are giving birth amid the rubble or in tents or cars because they can’t get to hospital or medical facilities. Pregnant women and newborn babies have repeatedly been forced to evacuate hospitals and aid workers report a big increase in premature births due to the extreme levels of stress. 

Fatima* says: “I know one woman who gave birth via cesarean section while in her tent. Recovery from cesarean delivery usually needs time, but this woman received no care at all. She had to wake up early to take care of her children, then got an infection.” 

Most people in Gaza have been forced from their homes and are now staying in desperately overcrowded shelters without clean water or sanitation, where women are particularly at risk. Islamic Relief staff say that in some shelters hundreds of men, women and children are sharing a single toilet or shower and women have to queue for hours at a time. The complete lack of privacy puts women at even greater risk of harassment and assault.  

Fatima* told us of pregnant women who are reluctant to drink or eat just to avoid having to use the toilets, as they are so crowded and dirty. More than 200,000 cases of acute watery diarrhea have now been recorded.   

A critical shortage of sanitary products is another major challenge for women and girls. Fatima* says, “Women on their period can’t find sanitary pads. Some girls and women are using rags instead of pads, but this has caused infections and other complications.  

“Many women and girls in Gaza can now only wash once every 10 days or 2 weeks.” 

Sanitary pads are rarely available, but even when a few can be found on local markets they are prohibitively expensive for most women. Since October Islamic Relief’s team in Gaza has distributed around 44,000 hygiene and dignity kits, including things like sanitary pads and other hygiene items.    

With pregnant women and new mothers at especially high risk of malnutrition, many relatives and partners give up their own food for them – but even so, most women in Gaza are now going whole days without eating. At least 15 young children have died from starvation, with more at risk of dying every day. Many new mothers face dehydration because they can’t get enough water, making it even harder for them to breastfeed.   

Islamic Relief Canada continues to call for an immediate ceasefire, an end to Israel’s siege and for Canada to halt the transfer of weapons as well as immediately suspend all arms export permits to Israel. 

*Fatima’s name has been changed to protect her identity due to the security situation in Gaza, where hundreds of health workers and aid workers have been killed.