International Women’s Day rings hollow amidst Gaza tragedy

By Maszsyuhada Maszri

As the world commemorated International Women’s Day on March 8th, celebrations were overshadowed by the grim reality in Gaza. Shocking reports reveal that an estimated 9000 Palestinian women have lost their lives, victims of violence, displacement, and dire healthcare conditions. This tragic toll, is a stark example of women’s suffering which stands in stark contrast to the spirit of empowerment and honor meant to characterize the day.

Prior to October 7th 2023, the situation for Palestinian women was already dire, with approximately 94,000 of them unable to access essential sexual and reproductive health services. The United Nations Population Fund had warned of the impact of restricted movement on maternity services, exacerbating already challenging conditions for expectant mothers.

Now, the situation has only worsened as Israeli airstrikes have decimated Gaza’s fragile health infrastructure. Hospitals and health centers, including crucial providers of sexual and reproductive health services, have been destroyed, leaving women and young people without vital care.

The total destruction of a health center operated by the Palestinian Family Planning and Protection Association illustrates the devastating consequences of these attacks.

Israel’s targeting of hospitals and other civilian infrastructure has led to catastrophic consequences. The bombing of the Al-Ahli Arab/Baptist Hospital and a UNRWA school resulted in hundreds of deaths, including women and children seeking refuge.

Shifa Hospital faced critical shortages of fuel and supplies after a raid, leaving newborns without incubators and hospitals unable to operate.

Reports from Gaza paint a dire picture of widespread malnutrition among pregnant women, exacerbating an already dire healthcare crisis.

A lead physician, Dr. Maram, has expressed grave concern about the situation, noting the prevalence of acute malnutrition among women and children. The closure of hospitals and shortages of medical supplies further compound the suffering.

Amid Israel’s strict controls on aid entering Gaza, displaced Palestinians are struggling to feed their children, with mothers unable to produce sufficient breast milk due to malnutrition. Relief workers report a stark increase in malnutrition cases and a significant loss in weight among civilians.

Nonetheless, another nightmare has befallen Palestinian women – period poverty. The dearth of sanitary pads in Gaza stands as a poignant emblem of the multifaceted suffering endured under Israel’s stringent blockade, ignited by the assault by Hamas resistance fighters last October.

In the heart-rending chronicles shared by Bisan Owda, a Gaza resident who candidly captures her daily struggles on Instagram, the absence of pads emerges as a new layer of anguish amidst the ceaseless onslaught of hunger, thirst, bombings, and displacement.

While pharmacies may offer period-delaying pills as a partial solution, the shadows of uncertainty loom large.

Many Palestinian mothers like Salma Khaled have voiced their concerns over their potential side effects towards their daughters, contemplating their usage amid the chaos of conflict.

Delving deeper, psychologist Nevin Adnan sheds light on the psychological and physiological toll exacted on women during such harrowing times.

The stress of displacement amplifies menstrual symptoms, leaving many grappling with insomnia, nervousness, and heightened tension.

In this desperate landscape, the uptake of period-delaying pills surges as a pragmatic choice for women striving to preserve their dignity amidst the scarcity of hygiene products.

However, Adnan’s cautionary notes underscore the imperative of seeking medical counsel, lest these pills inadvertently disrupt the delicate balance of women’s hormonal health.

The UN reported nearly 700,000 women and girls in Gaza grapple with menstrual cycles, the lack of basic necessities like privacy, sanitary pads, toilets, and clean water exacerbates their plight.

In the shelters managed by UNRWA, where resources are scarce, the stark ratio of one toilet per 486 individuals paints a distressing picture of the challenges faced by those seeking refuge.

Palestinian women are succumbing to profound humiliation of struggling to procure sanitary pads amid the ongoing genocide.

Many had to seek shelter in a tent devoid of even the most rudimentary sanitation facilities, and sharing only a single bathroom with over a hundred other women and children.

In addition, the closure of local supermarkets due to dwindling stocks further complicates the situation for the women, deprived of essential supplies such as sanitary pads and painkillers.

The worst is the biting cold in the tents and the agony of stomach pains induced by contaminated water which further exacerbate the torment of menstrual cramps.

Despite contemplating the use of medication to halt their menstruation, many young Palestinian women cannot do it because of the unavailability of such drugs.

At this tumultuous time where the terror of Israeli bombardment intertwines with the agony of menstrual pain, the already fragile mental health of these women drastically declines.

Certainly, the plight of the Palestinian women in Gaza is a feminist issue that deserves a long-term spotlight, though, it often goes unnoticed. This phenomenon of “imperial feminism” is glaringly apparent in the stark discrepancy between global reactions to various women’s issues.

The selective focus perpetuates Western narratives of intervention, disregarding the agency and voices of women in conflict regions like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine. Despite reports of grave violations against Palestinian women, their suffering remains overshadowed by geopolitical biases and media portrayals.

Thus, it is high time for feminism to transcend political divisions and prioritize universal empathy and justice for all women, irrespective of their circumstances, ethnicity or creed.

Failure to do so risks compromising the integrity of the feminist movement, undermining its commitment to inclusivity and solidarity.

In the pursuit of gender equality, setbacks reverberate far beyond their immediate consequences, nowhere more evident than in the ongoing tragedy unfolding in Palestine.

It is crucial for advocates of feminism to understand that the principles of social justice and human rights transcend borders, compelling others to stand in solidarity with Palestinian women and girls whose lives and futures are jeopardized by the prolonged Israeli occupation of their homeland.

Apart from that, it is equally important to recognize that, as seen globally, women in conflict zones and occupied territories bear the brunt of violence, displacement, loss of livelihoods, and restricted access to vital services like education and healthcare. For over seven decades, Palestinian women have endured significant deprivation of their rights due to Israel’s sustained occupation and oppression.

The Gaza blockade, in particular, has severely impacted women and girls, deteriorating living conditions, limiting access to services, increasing care-giving responsibilities, and heightening susceptibility to gender-based violence. Furthermore, the presence of Israeli forces in the West Bank and Occupied East Jerusalem compounds the prevalence of sexual violence.

One must not turn a blind eye in confronting these injustices. It is incumbent upon feminists and proponents of human rights to amplify the voices of Palestinian women and girls, standing steadfast in their solidarity and demanding an end to their suffering under occupation.

In the endeavor to foster gender equality, women’s empowerment, sustainable development, and inclusive societies, however, there is a glaring contradiction: how can states be expected to champion these causes while international law is selectively applied?

The recent ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on January 26, 2024, acknowledging the potential for Israel’s genocide against Palestinians in Gaza and issuing urgent provisional measures to halt the campaign, underscores this paradox.

Despite such calls for cessation, Israel persists in its egregious actions, sustained by a system of oppression aided by the complicity of the U.S. government, which lavishes billions in military aid upon Israel annually.

In a world rife with violence and injustice, genuine gender equality remains elusive, particularly when militarism and patriarchal structures collaborate to perpetuate oppression.

Feminists must recognize the interconnectedness of all struggles for justice and unite in solidarity, as well as advocating for an enduring ceasefire, it must extend beyond mere cessation of hostility.

Nonetheless, it is not enough to merely advocate for a ceasefire, but global communities must actively work towards dismantling oppressive systems, colonial-occupation and amplifying the voices of those most marginalized.

Only through collective action and unwavering solidarity can we hope to advance the cause of gender equality amidst the tumult of global injustice.