Women’s health in Palestine

When it comes to reproductive health, Palestinian women face complex and intertwined barriers.

Art by Vivienne Guo

In the occupied Palestinian Territories, a myriad of crises have unfolded over time as five million Palestinians have been living under Israeli military occupation since 1967. It is a known fact that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza do not have access to adequate healthcare services and facilities. This, combined with the history of intergenerational violence, as well as socio-economic issues, has impacted their overall health. Unsurprisingly, women are disproportionately affected by this.

Health in conflict zones is often talked about within the context of war, but there is rarely any focus on the structural issues that may underpin them. Living standards in the West Bank and Gaza have been gradually deteriorating since it was first occupied and even more so now. This, coupled with ongoing violence and military occupation with seemingly no end in sight has produced a dire humanitarian crisis which is amplified through Israel’s control over electricity, affecting the provision of essential health services, especially in Gaza where two million Palestinians live under siege, 40% of them refugees. 

Violence by Israeli forces on Palestinian civilians is placing pressure on Gaza’s health system and according to the World Health Organisation, there is “a chronic shortage of medicines and medical equipment” in Gaza. Furthermore, limited self-determination afforded to Palestinians has effectively made it difficult for the Palestinian Authority to provide and fund proper services and infrastructure to Palestinians, often relying on aid from UN organisations such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Two crises inevitably have collided to exacerbate each other in unfortunately preventable ways.

Gender is rarely addressed in discussions about health unless it specifically concerns maternal health, despite the fact that health challenges present themselves differently in men and women. Poor health conditions combined with a lack of access to adequate health services often means that Palestinian women face a number of barriers to optimal health. These barriers include inadequate health education and training, insufficient health infrastructure, combined with fragile political and socio-economic circumstances. The inadequacy of healthcare services and facilities that are available to women leads their overall health to be impacted as a result, and they are more prone to illnesses and diseases.

Within the Palestinian territories, there is an inadequacy in education around health. Whilst many educated women may be knowledgeable about general healthcare, there are often misconceptions surrounding certain women’s health issues, such as contraception, due to their stigmatisation and absence of accessible information. A 2019 study conducted by the Palestinian Medical Relief Society found that there was a lack of educational materials for adolescents on sexual and reproductive health. The lack of materials available inevitably means that young women do not have proper access to information regarding sexual and reproductive health which further impacts their physical and general well-being.

When it comes to reproductive health, Palestinian women face complex and intertwined barriers. Living in a society that is ruled by tradition, patriarchy, and conservative norms, it is difficult to advocate for not only funding, but for general access to the many aspects of reproductive health. The issue of accessibility, partnered alongside fragile economic and political circumstances, have rendered reproductive health a lower priority amongst wider Palestinian society.

Access to abortion is quite limited as Palestinian law only permits a woman to get an abortion if the mother’s life is in danger, and even then it must be approved by two physicians, as well as the woman herself and her husband or a guardian. Many women are forced to look to other avenues, such as expensive private Palestinian clinics, Israeli hospitals, or self-induced termination. While Palestinian women in Jerusalem can access Israeli hospitals, and those in the West Bank can access clinics, women in Gaza have virtually no access to abortion services. This is made further difficult, as women who may be seeking an abortion in Gaza would require undergoing a lengthy bureaucratic process in order to obtain an exit permit, which Israel routinely denies.

Israeli-enforced restrictions on mobility have made it difficult for civilians in need of medical care and hospital staff to move freely. Freedom of movement for Palestinian civilians is restricted due to the many military checkpoints throughout the West Bank as well as the blockade placed on Gaza with Palestinians often requiring permits that allow them to leave. This has resulted in decreasing access to postpartum and gynaecological care, leading to an increase in women giving birth at home and at military checkpoints.

The exposure to toxins and radioactive materials as a result of weapons, has presented a hazardous environment for the millions of Palestinian who live in Gaza. According to a report by Conscience Organisation for Human Rights published in 2014, babies born with birth defects have risen greatly. This report attributes exposure to these chemicals as a cause of these defects. 

The lack of exit permits provided by Israel means that Palestinian patients cannot seek general treatment in Israeli hospitals. This is similar to the way in which patients from Gaza cannot seek treatment in the West Bank or Jerusalem. Since 2013, there have been increasing restrictions on medical permits justified under the pretext of ‘security’. This has resulted in only 54% of applications having been approved in 2017, compared to 92% in 2012. 

Aside from regularly calling for an end to both the occupation and the siege, the World Health Organisation, alongside NGOs, Palestinian organisations and the United Nations, have devised strategies and implemented programs in an attempt to solve some of these crises which have arisen. The Palestinian Medical Relief Society has made several recommendations in order to promote and improve women’s health in the Palestinian territories. They recognise that improvement must come from clinics that are decentralised and made easily accessible. Furthermore, there must be an increase in medical supplies, and an increase in women’s health education that not only inludes training to medical and health professions, but to broader Palestinian society. In understanding issues relating to women’s health and what must be done to solve them, it is imperative to contextualise them as solutions cannot be made without taking into account the factors that play a role in exacerbating said problems.

In her book Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Lila Abu-Lughod acknowledges that Western feminists often love to propagate the myth of black and brown women who need to be “saved” from their “own culture,” whilst failing to acknowledge some of the structural causes behind the oppression of women, such as war, colonialism and imperialism. 

There is no argument that the liberation of Palestinian women is connected to the struggles of women everywhere else. It is, thus, imperative to recognise the circumstances that undermine health in the Palestinian territories, and to advocate for better health infrastructure in order to provide greater access to present and future generations of women.This is why standing in solidarity with Palestine, and calling for an end to Israel’s occupation, is integral in the fight for women’s rights.

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