In Tigray, Displaced Pregnant Women Struggling for Safe Childbirth, UN Agency Says

Sexual and reproductive health agency of the UN, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) says pregnant women in the war-torn Tigray region of Ethiopia are struggling to find support and stability after their displacement.

A 24-year-old Hiwot (not real name) from the embattled region says, “when you think about your future, you never plan to be uprooted from the comfort of your home and find fragile safety in a tent.” Yet this is exactly where she found herself in early December, while she was seven months pregnant.

Fighting intensified around her neighbourhood, forcing her and her husband to flee.

“As fighting came close to our house, my safety and that of my baby became my utmost priority. We had no choice but to run for our lives”, she told UNFPA.

Hiwot’s journey was long and dangerous: “We had to travel from Shire in the Tigray region to Dabat in Amhara region. It took us three full travel days to reach our destination. We were first on foot, but then, I became so tired that we took the risk and hitchhiked.”

Throughout, her main concern was safeguarding her pregnancy: “I was afraid that I’d fall sick, there would be no one to help me on the way, and I would lose my baby.”

Leaving everything behind

Before the conflict in Tigray erupted in November, things were looking good for Hiwot and her family. She made an income as a chef, something she greatly enjoyed. And about eight months ago, she found out that she was pregnant with her first child.

“My husband and I were thrilled. We were finally going to have a baby, and we were going to pamper him or her. We started planning for the child’s future.”

Those plans have been abandoned.

“I had to leave everything behind—my belongings, my jewellery, and my livelihood that gave me some independence and strength: my cooking set. I only managed to bring with me two dresses and some underwear, as well as the little money we had kept at home”, she said.

Three days of walking and hitchhiking brought them to Dabat, in Gondar, where aid groups have established a site for internally displaced people. There are currently 630 households, around 1,870 individuals, staying in the Dabat displacement site. Of them, 490 are estimated to be women and girls of reproductive age.

Hiwot and her husband share a tent with their neighbours from Tigray.

Today, the fighting in Tigray is ongoing, and access to humanitarian aid is limited and conditions are deteriorating, United Nations agencies report. In Amhara Region, tens of thousands of people are targeted for assistance.

Safe delivery services and support after trauma

Displacement and uncertainty have already taken a serious toll on Hiwot. “We are desperate now,” she said. “Both my husband and I are unemployed and have become reliant on others. We are not sure what we will do when the baby arrives next month.”

Where to give birth and under what conditions are major concerns.

She is not alone in this. There are an estimated 36 pregnant women in the Dabat displacement site, all in need of reproductive health care as well as other support, including psychosocial services.

UNFPA is working to urgently provide this care. In close collaboration with the Gondar City Administration Health Office, UNFPA is hiring midwives for the health centres serving the women and girls at the Dabat site. UNFPA is also distributing reproductive health kits to birth attendants, which will ensure midwives on-call have the supplies needed for safe deliveries.

Women who are six months or further along in their pregnancies will also receive clean delivery kits, which contain emergency supplies—including a sterile sheet, gloves and razor—to help them deliver whether at the displacement site or in the health centre.

UNFPA will also establish a women’s safe space and a child-friendly space where women and children can seek mental health and psychosocial support and receive important information. These services are critical for those, like Hiwot, struggling to come to terms with their new reality.

“I have nightmares,” she told UNFPA, tearing up, “about how will I keep the baby alive with no income and living in such difficult conditions.”

United States committed $32.5 million to UNFPA core resources, which will help the UN agency respond to the needs of women and girls across the globe.

Unrestricted core funding enables UNFPA to programme strategically and effectively, sustain and expand its presence in more than 150 countries including in humanitarian crises and help build capacities of government and partners.

Flexible core funding, is key to helping UNFPA fulfill its mandate of zero preventable maternal deaths, zero unmet need for family planning and zero gender-based violence and harmful practices by 2030, as unrestricted funds can be deployed rapidly to wherever the needs on the ground are most dire.

Take COVID-19, which has devastated the health and well-being of women and girls the world over. From disrupting family planning supply chains to restricting access to health care facilities, safe spaces and in-person counselling services to trapping women at home with abusers to school closures that may never see young students return, the pandemic has impeded progress in advancing the rights of women and girls.

Core funding allows programmes to pivot – distributing personal protective equipment or switching to mobile and telehealth services or disseminating information on shelters and legal aid via messaging apps.

And in a world where natural disasters are becoming ever more frequent and forceful, UNFPA helps individuals build resiliency in the face of climate crises.

“Advancing the health and rights of women and girls is key to peace, prosperity and sustainable development,” said UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem. “U.S. funds will enable UNFPA to save and transform many, many lives.”

In 2019, core funding and other support averted 47,000 maternal deaths, 14 million unintended pregnancies and over 3.9 unsafe abortions. It also saved more than 200,000 girls from female genital mutilation.

Still, every day more than 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth; more than 230 million women who want modern family planning aren’t using it; and one in five females over 15 has experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or former partner in the last year. The U.S.’s promise “sends a powerful message to women and girls around the world that their rights matter,” the UNFPA said in a statement.

Such numbers can seem just like that: nameless, faceless numbers. But those numbers have names, like Rima, the 5000th baby born at a UNFPA-supported clinic, established with significant U.S. funding, in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp in 2016. That is what core funding is: a lifeline, buffer against cruel winds, hope in challenging times.

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