‘I’ve Lost My Baby, My Home And My Life’: The perils of being pregnant in war-torn Yemen

Um Walid is lying in a hospital bed in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. The blanket keeping her warm is a deep red; the room is cast in a warm pinky-purple hue. She is sick, and struggling to search for the words to describe the loss of her unborn child just 21 days ago.

‘I feel so sad,’ the 34-year-old explains. ‘I’ve cried a lot.’

A mother of four boys, Um was hoping to have a baby girl. But three weeks ago, she needed to leave her hometown of Hodeida, Yemen’s main port city, and head north east. Her youngest son is suffering from severe malnutrition and acute anaemia – she travelled seven hours to Sana’a in search of medical help.

On the journey, however, she started bleeding.

‘I vomited the whole way. My mum pretty much carried me in her arms. Once we arrived I went to the hospital for a check-up and I was told I had lost my baby. I was three months pregnant.’

Um Walid (centre) with her mother (left), husband and two young boys in hospital in Sana’a. // Credit: UNFPA Yemen

Walid is still experiencing heavy bleeding and is, like her son, severely malnourished. The doctor has advised that she needs her ‘womb cleaned’ due to leftover pregnancy tissue, but she can’t undergo the operation just yet.

‘I need to breastfeed my son – he’s my priority,’ she says. ‘Besides, I can’t afford it.’

Yemen is in the grip of a bloody civil war. The fighting began in 2015, and is predominantly between the Houthi rebels, back by Iran, and Yemen’s Saudi-backed government.

Yet thousands of civilians have been caught in the middle, trapped by minefields and barrages of airstrikes. More than 10,000 people have been killed, including approximately 6,800 civilians.

The situation is, the UN says, the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster.

Yemeni pro-government forces gather on the eastern outskirts of Hodeida, as they continue to battle for the control of the city from Huthi rebels. // Credit: Getty Images, STRINGER / AFP

‘The human suffering is extremely disturbing,’ explains Anjali Sen from UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency. ‘And for no reason – everybody is losing here.’

As fighting and airstrikes thrust millions to the brink of starvation, Yemen’s looming famine is threatening to become the worst in recent world history.

Some 17.8 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from.

‘Sometimes a day passes and I haven’t eaten anything,’ explains Walid, before adding: ‘and I’m pregnant’ in case anyone could somehow forget her anguish.

The family will often just eat plain rice, or nothing at all.

‘We can’t get enough food because we can’t leave the house due to the fighting. My kids are traumatised from the continuous airstrikes and hovering planes – they can’t go to school. Everyone is scared. A lot of women I know have miscarried or are suffering complications.’

Women and girls did not bring about the conflict, says Sen, but they’re paying the heaviest price. They don’t simply stop getting pregnant when war hits, either, but support is a lot trickier to come by.

In Yemen, for example, the fighting has destroyed nearly half of all health facilities, cutting pregnant women off from emergency obstetric care. In one city alone – Hodeidah – 1,500 pregnant women are currently at risk of death due to the main hospital being inaccessible. Even if you’re lucky enough to live near a working medical facility, many can’t afford the services.

The lack of food is also alarming. If famine strikes, an estimated two million pregnant and lactating women will be at risk of death. More than 1 million are already acutely malnourished, which heightens the chance of miscarriage and stillbirth.

This is in a country that already has one of the highest maternal mortality ratios in the Arab region.

‘We cannot allow women to die while giving birth,’ explains Sen. ‘It’s just horrific in this day and age. Every woman has a right to a safe birth and delivery, for herself and her baby The process of giving birth should be happy, but instead it’s become life-threatening.’

Naval and air blockades and have restricted the flow of life-saving medicines, vitamins and food supplies. Meanwhile doctors have fled the country because they haven’t received a salary in more than two years.

Credit: UNFPA Yemen

If expectant mothers can’t find proper medical support, they’re forced to seek private care – or simply go without.

Like Walid, who can’t afford the 40,000 Yemeni Rial (£125) taxi back home – let alone a life-saving operation. Her check-up was free, but she now needs to pay for medication.

‘I don’t feel well,’ she says. ‘I’m taking 13 tablets a day and I can’t stand properly yet, but I do feel a lot better than when I first arrived.’

Her aim is to get well enough to travel home. Once back in Hodeida, she’ll get another check-up and if the operation is still needed she’ll either borrow money from relatives or start saving up.

‘I want to have another baby,’ she says, and then clarifies: ‘I want a girl.’

Before the fighting, Walid and her family lived on the coast. ‘The area was really relaxing – the air was so clean,’ she explains. They made enough money selling dates to pay off their debts. Eventually the area became too dangerous to live in, and they were forced to move to Bayt Al Faqih district, an hour inland.

Walid has returned to her house on the coast just once.

Um Walid walks the hospital corridors with her two young boys. // Credit: UNFPA Yemen

‘Everything was in ashes,’ she says, her voice catching: ‘I felt as if my life was over.’

Help exists, but it’s scarce. The UNFPA have been operating mobile clinics, provided antenatal and post-natal care, assistance for safe deliveries, and reproductive health kits that have benefited more than 453,000 women and girls.

While Walid’s husband wants ‘ten more kids’, she is firm on the number of future pregnancies.

‘I will only get pregnant again if the war ends,’ she explains. ‘And if the standard of living gets better. I can barely feed my four sons now – how can I feed another soul?

‘Men, like my husband, don’t feel the pain and hardship that women feel, and they don’t care how many times we give birth. But I’m hopeful. Everyone is hoping for a better future.’

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