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Women in Gaza are desperately in need of washrooms, privacy and pads

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Death, hunger, disease. These are some of the visible consequences of Israel's war in Gaza. But for more than half a million women and girls there, there is a less visible kind of suffering, one that recurs every few weeks, war or not. NPR's Aya Batrawy has this report.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Women in Gaza are struggling in ways that are difficult to openly talk about in this traditional society. But basically, pads and toilet paper are in short supply. Ruba Akkila is a gender and child protection expert in Gaza.

RUBA AKKILA: If you search in all the pharmacies here, the pharmacies that - you know, you're not going to find anything at all. Like, and if found, it's five and six times the price.

BATRAWY: She says not only are pads more expensive to buy, putting them out of reach for most of Gaza's impoverished and now unemployed households, but they're nowhere to be found a lot of the time. That's because of Israel's near-total siege of Gaza for the past three months following a deadly rampage in Israel by Hamas militants on October 7. Another challenge is finding a bathroom and running water.

AKKILA: You cannot clean quite well in this regard, so it's messy. It's terrible, and nobody speaks about it.

BATRAWY: Akkila says some women wake up early and line up at hospitals to shower and use the bathroom. This is especially hard, though, for pregnant women facing pressure on their bladder and women who've just given birth and are going through weeks of postpartum bleeding. The sound of an Israeli drone buzzes overhead as Akkila explains how women are suffering in silence. She says, they're cutting up towels, secondhand clothes and even the corners of their tents to use as pads.

AKKILA: The only way to do it is just to do it with scissors. And yes - no water, no toilet paper, no privacy, no pads in the market. And yes, that's terrible for women, and it is a big issue here.

BATRAWY: But DIY pads aren't a workable solution for all women. Life in Gaza is a struggle for survival. People are spending their days searching for food and drinking water, and many have had to relocate more than once as Israel orders more areas it's bombing to evacuate. Heba Usrof, a young woman in Gaza, sent this voice memo to NPR's producer Abu Bakr Bashir.

HEBA USROF: (Through interpreter) I have a lot of friends that are taking pills to prevent their periods because there are no pads.

BATRAWY: Around 2 million people, nearly all of Gaza, are now displaced and homeless. Most are living in overcrowded U.N.-run schools, where sometimes 400 people share a single bathroom. Others are living in the open or in tents. Bisan Owda has been vividly documenting her life in Gaza throughout the war to her 3.7 million followers on Instagram. She posted a video talking about the stigma around not finding pads.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BISAN OWDA: Women now are simply exposed to psychological and physical health risks because there's no products to use during their periods. Women are trying to tell you this, but they don't have to be shy, actually.

BATRAWY: In another video, she showed what the inside of a makeshift bathroom in a tent encampment in Khan Younis in Gaza looks like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OWDA: There is no water. There is nothing around them. There is no infrastructure. They're living just in a tent, and they need bathroom. They're humans. They made this.

BATRAWY: She pans to a garbage basket that doubles as a toilet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OWDA: They're having bath here.

BATRAWY: She shows a plastic rectangular bucket on the ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OWDA: Can you imagine? This is a bathroom.

BATRAWY: Only a fraction of the aid Gaza needs is entering every day. The U.N. says everyone in Gaza is hungry and that half of Gaza is starving. The aid trucks that are coming in are mostly packed with food, filtered water or medical aid - not with the items that women need to deal with their cycles. Women's menstrual struggles are a private, taboo topic, even in wartime. Heba Usrof describes it as, quote, "the issue" in her voice notes.

USROF: (Through interpreter) We are moving around a lot. We don't have the luxury of sitting around and relaxing, so the issue is really hard. We literally drown.

BATRAWY: UNICEF told NPR they've distributed more than 41,000 hygiene kits that include pads in Gaza since the start of the war, but they say nearly 70 trucks with more of these kits and other essential items have been at border crossings for weeks, waiting for Israeli checks to enter. And it's only a sliver of what's needed. Women in Gaza say menstruation has become a monthly humiliation and another layer of suffering. Aya Batrawy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Aya Batrawy
Aya Batrawy is an NPR International Correspondent. She leads NPR's Gulf bureau in Dubai.