/ 29 March 2024

The vulnerable experience of childbirth during war

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Suffering: Iman al-Masri, a displaced Palestinian, gave birth to quadruplets in a shelter at a school in the Gaza Strip on 25 December. Photo: Majdi Fathi/Getty Images

About 180 mothers are giving birth every day in war-torn Gaza. Out of the 36 hospitals in the city, only 12 are partially functional, with reduced access to medical supplies, limiting options for pregnant women. 

When the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) published the above report on 4 November, I had given birth a few days before in a private ward, in a top-class facility in South Africa. 

The pregnancy and the birth of my daughter were not easy. At 35 weeks, I felt a warm fluid trickling down my leg, followed by a sharp pain in my abdomen. I was rushed to hospital, admitted for two days and diagnosed with premature rupture of the membranes surrounding my baby. 

Some of the water she was living in had seeped out and, if this persisted, I would need to deliver her prematurely, otherwise she would suffocate. 

I prayed. 

I asked God to keep my daughter safe and preserve my life. 

Could the women in Gaza pray for the same? Would God spare their lives and their children’s lives the way he had mercy upon my own life and that of my child? 

Doctors have linked conflict to an increase in miscarriages, congenital abnormalities, stillbirths, pre-term labour and maternal mortality. 

I thought about this while I was pregnant, praying the women in Gaza would get to meet their newborns.

The gynaecologist put me on bed rest because my pregnancy was now considered high risk and I was seeing my doctor every four days. 

The fear that overcame me was incredible. As a first-time pregnant woman, I did not know what was happening half of the time but at least I could count on being able to go to the doctor and hospital whenever I needed to.

Since 7 October, women in Gaza have not been able to say the same. 

I prayed for them. 

During my bed rest, I sat day in and day out, consuming and internalising what was happening in Gaza. 

At one point, my husband had to confiscate my electronic devices because he feared I was putting myself in distress. But how could I not? These women were in the very same situation that I was in. 

Some needed medical attention and doctors because they, too, were high-risk patients. But hospitals in Gaza were targeted. 

On 17 October, there was an explosion at al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza which resulted in the death of 471 people and the injury of 342.

Almost a month later, The World Health Organisation reported that at least 521 people, including 16 medical workers, had been killed in 137 “attacks on healthcare” in Gaza on 12 November.

I prayed for them. 

I gave birth a few weeks later, at 38 weeks, because this time it was my baby that was in distress. The hospital staff, the nurses and doctors were all efficient. I had no fear there would be interference when I was giving birth. 

The gynaecologist, anaesthetist and paediatrician were standing at the ready, dedicated to me. 

I prayed for the women in Gaza. 

I gave birth to a 3.7kg daughter and I knew God is good. Childbirth is a sacred and vulnerable experience and God was good to me. He allowed me to meet my precious baby girl. I praise him more every day for that. 

Meanwhile, in Gaza, women are having to give birth in shelters, in their homes, in the streets amid rubble and in overwhelmed healthcare facilities, where sanitation is worsening, and the risk of infection and medical complications is on the rise, Unicef reports. 

In January, Al Jazeera published a “Know Their Names” project, identifying some of the thousands of children who had been killed. The project listed 4 216 Palestinians, from infants to 17-year-olds. It showed that 75% of those named had not reached teenagehood, more than half were under the age of 10, and nearly 500 were younger than two years old.

When I read that article, my baby girl was two months old. We were still not sleeping because she was not sleeping. She suffered from reflux and this made her cry. Milk would come out her nose as she slept. She would wake up unable to breathe. 

We were on high alert. The tension was palpable. I questioned a lot of things during that time and one of them was whether God was good. Why would he make my baby suffer? 

But whose babies and children should suffer?

The image of Hector Pieterson haunts South Africans to this day — a 12-year-old boy shot by apartheid police because he took part in the protests against Afrikaans, the language of instruction in schools. 

Hector was someone’s child and he did not reach adulthood. Children die in times of conflict. It should not be so but it is. 

Whether God is good or not is something I often toggle between. 

But I will bring up my baby girl to see the goodness of God when it presents itself, because with her being here, I have seen it.