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Giving birth in Gaza: 'I resorted to instructional videos on social media'

On the ground in Rafah, a reporter writing for The Journal speaks with pregnant women and new mothers.

AMID THE ECHOES of war, 23-year-old Israa Sami’s journey to motherhood sheds light on the profound challenges faced by pregnant women in Gaza. 

Israa gave birth to her second child on 15 January in an Emirati field hospital in Rafah, amid displacement and harsh conditions. Her husband, Mohammed Rami, 25, welcomed his first baby girl into the world, saying she provides a glimmer of hope. 

“We wish that this war ends soon… Our children deserve to live a better life than the one that we lived and faced” Mohammed told a reporter writing for The Journal from Rafah.

In the midst of the Israeli war on Gaza, Israa – like hundreds of other pregnant women -  faced myriad challenges, adding layers of complexity to their already difficult displacement circumstances.

“I never imagined that I would find myself giving birth in a tent, displaced and deprived of everything – with only bitterness, humiliation and betrayal filling our hearts,” she said. 

“After around hundred days of displacement, exhaustion and the burden of pregnancy in the final challenging days, I could no longer bear it.”

palestinians-look-at-destruction-from-the-israeli-bombardment-of-the-gaza-strip-in-rafah-monday-feb-12-2024-ap-photohatem-ali A children's bedroom, destroyed, in Rafah Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

As Rafah now accommodates a third of Gaza’s population, there was no empty bed for Israa. 

“I had to wait for my turn in the delivery room where tens of pregnant women were going through labour,” she recalled. “I remained standing, waiting for my turn amidst tears of pain.”

After two hours of waiting at the hospital, a bed was made available but after delivery, there was also no suitable place to receive postnatal care. 

“I suffered from fever due to the severe cold, and there were no medications except pain relievers,” Israa explained, saying she left the hospital to return to the western Rafah displacement camp on a donkey cart as there were no cars or other vehicles to be found. 

“I couldn’t descend,” she said of her arrival. “And there was not enough space for the donkey cart or any other vehicle to pass. I saw a disabled man sitting on a wheelchair, so I asked him for the chair.

“He sympathised with my situation and gave me the chair so I could return to my tent after the pains of childbirth. I passed through the tents and reached my tent, which was extremely cold.”

people-sit-near-tents-at-a-make-shift-shelter-for-palestinians-who-fled-to-rafah-people-sit-near-tents-at-a-make-shift-shelter-for-palestinians-who-fled-to-rafah-in-the-southern-gaza-strip-on-february A makeshift shelter in Rafah Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

C-sections and disease

The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) reported that about 20,000 children have been born in the Gaza Strip since 7 October, including some born through Caesarean sections without anaesthesia. Unicef has also said that many embryos perished in their mothers’ wombs.

Speaking to journalists in Geneva, spokesperson Tess Ingram said, “Motherhood should be a cause for celebration. In Gaza, it’s another child entering a hellish reality.”

Rawan Ahmed, a 27-year-old resident of Jabalia Camp, was evacuated from her home to an UNRWA school in her ninth month of pregnancy last December. The absence of medical facilities and care in Jabalia was her biggest nightmare.

The only hospital in Jabalia, Kamal Adwan Hospital – once a beacon of hope – was laying in ruins due to the Israeli army operations in that area. Desperate for assistance, Rawan’s mother-in-law struggled to find a legal midwife for the impending delivery.

In challenging conditions, Rawan gave birth in a school plagued by diseases, including hepatitis and Covid-19. The absence of healthcare and humanitarian aid deepened the distress, and the meager food (often limited to spoon-fed fava beans and two pieces of candy) provided hardly met her nutritional needs.

Using doctors on social media

According to the World Health Organisation, around 50,000 pregnant women reside in Gaza, with 180 new births daily. Approximately 15% of these expectant mothers are anticipated to experience complications related to pregnancy or childbirth, necessitating additional care. The closure of 14 hospitals and 45 primary healthcare clinics exacerbates their plight, leaving them with limited access to essential services.

Wissam Sbeih, 34, from Gaza City, is currently eight months pregnant with her third child. Confronting the challenges posed by the destruction of hospitals such as Al-Shifa and the absence of healthcare centres, she sought guidance online and found educational videos for self-birthing.

“Given the dire situation and the unavailability of medical facilities, I resorted to instructional videos on social media platforms, particularly on Dr. Haya Hajazi‘s Instagram page,” she said.

“Learning how to navigate the birthing process on my own became a crucial survival skill, driven by concerns for both my safety and that of my unborn child.”

Newborn struggles 

Other displaced women like Samia Ahmed, 29, talked about the problems they will face once their babies are born. Samia is currently in Rafah after she left her Al-Rimal neighbourhood in Gaza city on 13 October. 

“I’m now in the beginning of my ninth month of pregnancy, I went to the market to find clothes for my newborn,” she said. 

Unfortunately, there were no baby clothes available.

“I posted a story on my Instagram seeking help from friends to provide used baby clothes. I visited people in Rafah, knocking on doors to find second-hand clothes for my newborn. I could barely find second-hand clothes,” she added.

Widad Saheeb, 33, gave birth in Khan Younis where she was displaced and she recounted the challenges she faced: “In my eighth month of pregnancy, after fleeing from Gaza City to Khan Yunis, my scheduled medical examination was repeatedly delayed due to the difficult circumstances at hospitals”. 

“I gave birth in Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis in early January 2024. The scene was surreal, with women screaming in pain during labour and mourning the loss of their loved ones in nearby rooms. The distance between the delivery room and the room of mourning was tragically short.”

palestinians-mourn-a-baby-killed-in-the-israeli-bombardment-of-the-gaza-strip-at-a-hospital-morgue-in-rafah-monday-feb-12-2024-the-israeli-military-said-early-monday-that-it-had-rescued-two-hosta A baby killed in Rafah, pictured in the hospital morgue on Monday Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Ayah Mohammed, 32, who gave birth three months before the Israeli war, highlighted the postnatal struggles: “After moving to Khan Yunis with my husband and two daughters, finding formula and diapers in sizes 4 and 5 became challenging.

“We would visit every pharmacy in Khan Yunis, but availability was scarce, and when we did find them, the prices were exorbitant. My husband, who lost his job in Gaza City, struggled to provide, compounding our difficulties.”

gaza13feb People gathering in front of their destroyed house in Rafah Dima Jalal Saud Dima Jalal Saud

Many women have also been separated from their children in Gaza since 7 October. Rawan Mohammed, a 29-year-old divorcee who separated from her husband three years ago, is one woman in this position.

Despite obtaining court permission to see her 13-year-old son Sami on a weekly basis, the relentless war has disrupted proceedings, leaving them unable to reunite. 

“Sami is my only child, and since last October, I haven’t seen him once,” Rawan shared. “We fled to Nuseirat in the central area of Gaza Strip with my family, while Sami sought refuge with his father in the same area. The internet and communication networks have become unreliable, making it impossible for me to reach out to him.” 

According to Hakim Abu Karsh, a lawyer specialising in legal matters in Gaza, the Israeli war has severely impacted the rights of women and children, hindering their ability to enforce or fulfill judicial decisions.

Legal courts, particularly those handling family matters, have become inaccessible due to the war’s disruptions, denying women like Rawan the opportunity to secure their rightful claims as per personal status laws.

“Among the legitimate rights for women and children are spousal and child support, as well as financial provisions for mothers, adult daughters, and sisters. Additionally, there are issues related to child custody, visitation, child relocation, and divorce matters, to name a few,” explains Abu Karsh.

He further emphasised that many women may have obtained court judgments in their favour, but the ongoing war in Gaza has made it impossible to execute these decisions.

The halt in police operations and the local government’s struggle to maintain security have created a vacuum where the rule of law is challenging to uphold.

Women’s safety

Rawan’s plight symbolises the broader struggles faced by women and families in Gaza, where the tides of war have torn apart the fabric of society. Yet, amidst the darkness, stories of resilience and the enduring strength of familial bonds have emerged, casting a light on the human spirit that refuses to be extinguished, even now.

Salma Omar, a 39-year-old who fled north Gaza to a tent in western Rafah said, “I was brutally assaulted by my husband due to economic problems he is facing, resulting in fractures in my left leg and 22 stitches in my head. I attempted to file for divorce, but it became impossible due to the suspension of court proceedings.”

Even women’s care centres are not accessible to affected women. Hala Omar, 24, told believes the burden of war is doubled in women as they don’t have source of income or protection.

“I experienced verbal and physical violence including beatings and insults last October by my brother due to the pressures arising from the war,” she said. “I couldn’t seek refuge at any women’s shelter in the region due to the war, with all places closed. Our continuous displacement exposed me to ongoing violence, making me vulnerable at all times.”

The Journal knows the identity of the reporter on the ground in Gaza but has used a pseudonym for security purposes. 

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