GAZA: Women Suffering Heavily in Mideast Violence

Thursday, July 17, 2014
Women eNews
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)-- From Iraq to Syria to the Gaza Strip, Arab women are paying a heavy price for violence flaring across the region.

Currently, with the start of air strikes by Israel on July 7 in response to rockets fired by Hamas, the focus is drawn to Gaza. As of July 16, more than 200 Palestinians have been killed and thousands injured. No Israeli citizens have been killed, largely thanks to the nation's Iron Dome missile interceptor.

Israel sends warnings of incoming missiles. But women in Gaza whose movements are slowed by pregnancy or the need to gather up toddlers and small children, they can be too late. In the scramble and stress such women are among those being killed. And if they are out of the direct line of fire, they are suffering from a shortage of maternity care as hospitals shift their focus to the wounded.

"A 7- month pregnant women, in her early 30s, was killed by an air strike along with her 1-year old daughter," Bill Van Esveld, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Israel and Palestine, told Women's eNews in a phone interview Tuesday. "Her husband and 3-year-old were wounded."

The air strike was targeting an apartment building across the street, said Van Esveld, who criticizes the type of warning used by the Israeli army because Palestinians have barely time to leave their homes.

The "knock on the roof" technique used by the Israeli military warns Palestinian civilians of an impending missile strike by firing a small non-explosive "warning" missile at the apartment building minutes before the main missile strikes. Residents have few minutes to evacuate.

Van Esveld recalls the case of a 28-year-old woman who miscarried as a result of the air strikes. "I believe she was in her fifth month."

Heavy Civilian Casualties
The large majority of casualties are civilians.

"All indications are--and I find this particularly dramatic--that women and children make up a sizable number of the victims of the current strikes," Pierre Krahenbuhl said July 14. "Currently more than one quarter of the fatalities are children." Krahenbuhl is commissioner-general of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. In another estimate, Gaza health officials have said at least 39 children and 24 women were among the dead.

Although no casualties have been reported on the other side of the border, Israeli women also suffer the stress of rocket sirens. "Doctors in southern Israel say women dealing with life under rocket fire are suffering from similar problems," reports The Huffington Post. Stress can cause miscarriages and women in Israel exposed to rocket attacks had a 59-percent greater risk of miscarrying compared to women away from rocket fire, according to one study quoted in the Huffington Post.

While Palestinian women who live in Gaza cannot escape the violence, female refugees from Syria are finding little safety or stability in the places to which they flee.

More than 145,000 Syrian refugee families--or 1-in-4 of all refugee households --in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan are headed by women facing a lone fight for survival, finds a UN report published on July 8. These refugee women often face harassment, humiliation and isolation, according to the report.

The challenges faced by Syrian female refugees are countless; from domestic violence to economic struggles. Maternal health hazards are a common denominator, whether in Gaza or in the countries to which Syrian women are fleeing.

Stranded in Bekaa Valley
Last year Doctors Without Borders, or Medecins Sans Frontieres, opened a reproductive health care center in Bekaa Valley, the main entry point for Syrians crossing the border into Lebanon, and found numerous pregnant women had been stranded during their flights to safety. "We've heard stories of women who were left to deliver on their own, in a tent." Marjie Middleton, a midwife in charge of the project, writes on the group's website. "Such stories are very upsetting to me as a midwife, because I know how dangerous it is and how awful it must be for a mother to give birth scared and alone."

In Iraq, women facing the threat of the radical Sunni-group, are being kidnapped and raped as reported by Women's eNews last month. Eighteen women were reportedly taken from their house and raped by ISIS in Mosul in June.

Against this backdrop, some Iraqi women are now attending weapons training courses to defend themselves and households from the advance of ISIS. More than 450 women have been trained by the Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia, in Baghdad this year, as CNN recently reported.

In every conflict, pregnant women become more vulnerable and this is evident in Gaza now.

Palestinian women are "suffering from complications like pre-term labor, miscarriages, and stillbirths" due to the stress of war, said Dr. Ali Shaar, a reproductive health program officer in Palestine for UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. In a Skype interview on Wednesday, Shaar said that when the treatment of the wounded takes precedence, maternity care is left with fewer resources and staff.

"The stress of the bombing has resulted in disproportionately high number of pregnancy complications such as miscarriage, pre-term labor and bleeding that could result in death," said Shaar.

One case of maternal death has been registered a couple of days ago, he said. "The pregnant woman who started to bleed was delivering at a small local hospital but by the time she reached the central hospital of Al-Shifa it was too late."

Hospitals in Gaza are now running out of electricity, medical supply and staff. The largest medical complex and central hospital of Gaza Strip, Al-Shifa hospital, is now being swamped with dead bodies and wounded.

"Al-Shifa hospital is struggling to take care of the pregnant women," The Huffington Post reported. "In many rooms where one or two women would normally be, there are five beds lined up next to each other. With 46 of the hospital's roughly 150 maternity ward nurses stuck at home or afraid to come to work because of the air strikes, according to staff, the hospital is putting as many women as possible in one room to better look after the patients."

Hospital staff can be left waiting for replacements who fear moving about the streets, worsening the stress on the hospital system. "Staff that is not on duty is now reluctant to come from home to the hospital unless it is ensured they will have safe transportation," Shaar said.

Hajer Naili is a New York-based reporter for Women's eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa women in Islam.