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Source: UN Women.

Beyond the headlines: The untold crisis of women's health in Middle Eastern and North African conflict zones

Where chaos reigns supreme, the silence speaks volumes, echoing the continuous erosion of women's rights and the relentless bleeding of their lives in the MENA region. To turn a blind eye to these realities is to perpetuate the crisis, to consign generations of women to the shadows of neglect and exploitation.

In the bustling chaos of the Middle East and North Africa, where the grind of war affects people of all races and ages, the often-overlooked realm of women's sexual and reproductive health is a silent crisis. Picture this: even in times of peace and security, these crucial issues are obscured and neglected. Now, in the midst of regional conflicts, they are pushed further into the shadows, lost amid the urgent clamor for food security and survival, labeled as "luxuries" or "trivialities."

Yet, beneath the surface lies a reality we cannot afford to ignore. The neglect of women's health in times of crisis is not just a matter of convenience—it's a humanitarian emergency unfolding before our very eyes.

Sudan: a 2024 Snapshot

The dawn of 2024 greeted the Sudanese people with an ominous symphony of bullets. Within the tumultuous backdrop of the ongoing civil strife between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, the harrowing narratives emerging from the frontlines paint a bleak and despairing tableau.

As the conflict engulfs 60% of the nation, leaving over 10,000 lives lost and displacing 7 million, the city of Wad Madani witnessed a chilling chapter. Captured by the Rapid Support Forces, the immediate quest for contraceptives and abortion pills by women reflects a haunting fear of the paramilitary's notorious legacy of sexual violence, using rape as revenge.

In the aftermath of the intense clashes, the Sudanese army's withdrawal left 700,000 people at the mercy of RSF. The paramilitary's triumph, however, unveils a dark cloud of risks, with the specter of sexual violence looming large in the hearts of Wad Madani residents.

Drawing parallels from the paramilitary's past capture of Darfur, where dozens of women and girls fell victim to rape, the recorded cases, according to the Sudanese Organization for Research and Development (SORD), may be just a fraction of the actual figures, possibly less than 3%.

Amidst these horrifying accounts, women and girls who endured prolonged captivity were denied access to medical care and coerced into carrying unwanted pregnancies. The assaults, with a deliberate focus on non-Arab women aged between 14 and 18, carry a sinister motive for altering the ethnic fabric of Sudan, as survivors bravely recount their tales. In the face of such adversity, the resilience of the Sudanese people stands as a testament to the urgent need for attention and intervention on the global stage.

Silenced by Shame: Unreported Cases Plague Justice System

According to ReliefWeb, many cases of rape and sexual assault remain unreported due to the fear of social stigma inflicted upon the victims, perpetuated by prevailing cultural norms. Consequently, with these cases concealed and victims reluctant to pursue legal action, achieving justice becomes a daunting task, if not nearly impossible.

However, amidst these challenges, the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies, a non-profit organization headquartered in New York, has urged Sudanese authorities to investigate incidents of rape and mass abductions in South Darfur. A statement released months ago by the center revealed horrifying details, citing the gang rape of 43 women and girls, with approximately 26 others abducted in the region. The organization emphasized the urgent need for a special investigator to handle cases and ensure the protection of victims from potential reprisals.

Despite these calls for action, Ihsan Abdel-Aziz, the coordinator of Women Against Injustice, raised doubts regarding the independence and efficacy of the country's judicial system. In an interview with Radio Dabanga, Abdelaziz highlighted the persistent lack of confidence in Sudan's justice system, which has endured since the era of former President Omar Al Bashir. Nonetheless, the organization remains determined to advocate for victims' rights and will engage with judicial authorities to ensure the pursuit of justice and the protection of victims' rights.

Critical Aid Shortages Imperil Women's Lives

The dire situation persists not only in the parallel scenes of conflict in the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon, where armed conflicts have raged since October seventh, presenting a global spectacle of atrocities and existential challenges. However, the plight of women extends beyond the harrowing scope of sexual assaults, as seen in Sudan, intertwining with a severe lack of humanitarian aid.

The crisis has led UN bodies to foresee an imminent famine in the Gaza Strip, sounding an alarm for the international community to witness the unfolding tragedy. Amid the estimated 1.5 million internally displaced people in Gaza, shelter conditions have deteriorated significantly. Women and girls find themselves grappling with a shortage of menstrual hygiene products, grappling with sexually transmitted diseases, and urinary tract infections in overcrowded shelters. Medical treatment is scarce, exacerbating already dire circumstances.

The challenges extend further, with approximately 50,000 pregnant women facing critical shortages in contraception, as highlighted by the OCHA relief website. Contraceptive supplies are dangerously low, compelling women to share pills, while those with intrauterine contraceptive devices (IUDs) suffer from bleeding and infections due to unsanitary conditions in the camps. The absence of options for IUD removal in Gaza poses lasting risks to women's reproductive health, including severe bleeding, creating a grave concern for the well-being of women living in these neglected conditions.

This issue is exacerbated by the ongoing decline in funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). Currently, 16 countries have suspended their financial support to the organization, further deepening the financial crisis it faces.

Urgent Need of Action

From Sudan to the Gaza Strip and beyond, the struggle for women's reproductive and sexual health knows no bounds. Let's not sugarcoat it: what we've seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg. In the shadows of conflict-ridden places like Iraq and Syria, women face a nightmare of human trafficking and exploitation.

It's time to wake up to this reality. Governments alone can't solve it. Women's groups, with their limited resources, can't do it all. We need global action, real commitment, and substantial support to end these atrocities.

Let's be clear: in the Middle East and North Africa, women's rights, especially regarding sexual and reproductive health, are in crisis. From basic hygiene products to emergency contraception, these rights cannot be ignored any longer. It's not just a violation of rights; it's a crime against humanity, against every woman out there.