The women and girls of Gaza bear heavy burdens during Israel’s war against Hamas

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JERUSALEM – Salma Tarabin is eight months pregnant, praying that the war will end before her third child is born into a “toxic” world.

The 30-year-old is tired, hungry and sick from drinking dirty water. For a month now, she has been sleeping on a sheet on the hard floor of a classroom with more than 80 other women and children, she told The Washington Post by phone. The older men and boys sleep outside in the courtyard of a school once run by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, in the southern Gazan city of Rafah.

Dirt makes every surface and crack, she said. There is no water for washing. Navigating a bathroom in such close quarters is a nightmare for women in this conservative society. To cope, some people only go to the bathroom once a day, they told the Post.

Tarabin had C-sections for her first two children and fears she would have to endure a third under those circumstances, possibly without the hard-to-find anesthesia — that is, she said, if she even does. during the next month.

“I’m afraid I’ll die before the baby is born,” she said.

Gaza will become a ‘graveyard for children’ as Israel intensifies airstrikes

Across central and southern Gaza, UN facilities, family homes and makeshift camps are overflowing with some of the 1.5 million Gazans displaced by Israel’s war against Hamas militants. Thousands more families continue to pour in daily from the besieged north, where Israeli forces are constantly advancing.

After five weeks of massive explosion and almost total siege, there is almost no electricity. There is not enough food to go around, and there is no regular access to clean water or basic sanitation. Airstrikes continue to kill and maim people in what the Israeli military has described as “safer areas” in the south.

The stress of war and displacement is especially hard to bear for Gazan women and girls.

Noura Atta, 47, and her five daughters sleep in the same cement room as Tarabin. They survive on small portions of cheese and bread provided by UNRWA. As winter approaches, they burn clothes for warmth some nights.

Menstrual cycles have become a constant stress.

UNRWA distributes sanitary pads in the school – but not nearly enough, said Atta. She is forced to cut dirty clothes for her daughters. Without water or privacy, they have no way to clean themselves or their underwear.

“I can’t bear the tears and pain of my daughters when they get their period,” Atta said. “I don’t know how to ease their burden.”

Nahid Abdel Hamid, 26, a mother of three, sleeps nearby. She has started taking birth control to avoid getting her period. Other women at school took the pills, she said.

She is worried about negative consequences, but she is grateful. “They have provided a safe place to free myself from being exposed to the lack of hygiene here,” she said.

Nadia Abdel Nabi, 14, lives in the same room. Her period was just for the second time, surrounded by strangers. She is confused by what is happening to her body, she told the Post on the phone, sharing her story with her family’s permission.

“I feel an urgent need for my mother to always be by my side,” she said.

“I wish I could go back to our house,” she said, although she believes it was destroyed or damaged in the fighting. “I’m really tired.”

The fifth war between Israel and Hamas began on October 7 following the militant group’s attack on southern Israel, in which fighters killed around 1,200 people and took more than 230 hostages.

More than 11,100 Palestinians have been killed in the weeks since, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which said on Friday it could no longer provide updated figures, citing damage to communications infrastructure and the intensity of the fighting. fight

Even before the war, the small, overcrowded coastal enclave was facing multiple economic and health crises after 16 years of Israeli-led blockade. Hamas, the US-designated terrorist group running the struggle, imposed an extreme form of Islamist rule that restricted women’s rights.

UNRWA has sought to address “overpopulation and the unique challenges for women and girls,” spokeswoman Tamara Alrifai told the Post. Across UN facilities, women and young children sleep in one section and men in another to adhere to social codes and protect against harassment.

But the numbers are staggering. About 778,000 Gazans are taking refuge in at least 154 UNRWA sites, mostly in the center and south, the agency said.

As Gazan civilians flee south, those in the north become more desperate.

So far, Alrifai said, UNRWA has not seen an increase in gender-based violence, but she expects that to change: “Both sexual harassment and domestic violence tend to increase during long periods of displacement .”

The humanitarian aid that has flown into Gaza – described by the UN secretary-general as “completely inadequate” – has included just two trucks carrying supplies to deliver babies and Caesarean sections, according to the UN family and planning organization. UNFPA estimates that there are approximately 50,000 pregnant women in Gaza, and that 5,500 of them are due to give birth over the next month – up to more than 180 births per day.

Fatima Hamed’s daughter, 25, is five months pregnant. On Tuesday, she was trying to find a tarp for her, to offer some measure of privacy and protection.

“We don’t have the minimum requirements for life – not water or food,” Hamed, 55, told The Post by phone from Rafah. “We put off getting food until the evening hours so that we don’t have to go to the bathroom, and so that we don’t go to bed hungry. “

Five days after the war, a strike hit Hamed’s house in Beit Hanoun, in the north-east of Gaza. The family of 12 first fled to the UNRWA school in Deir al-Balah, a part of the area where Israel has urged civilians to flee to safety. When strikes hit nearby houses, she said, they fled again.

The family made it to Rafah, finding shelter in a small government-run school that provides no food or support. When it rained on Monday, the men slept outside while the women and children gathered together in a schoolroom.

She and her daughter spent the night worrying about losing the baby.

“We are now living in the Stone Age,” said Hamed. “Whoever does not die of murder will die of hunger, disease, fear and pollution.”

Harb reported from London.

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