Malnutrition masks joy of pregnancy for women in Lebanon in the face of growing crises

Lebanese mother-to-be Rana Mneimneh waits for her turn at a clinic providing free consultations in Beirut on September 18, 2020
5 min read
26 January, 2022

The health of many pregnant women in Lebanon is under threat, with the majority either having to rely on the cheapest alternatives or having to skip meals. The cost of food has soared by 700 percent over the past two years, which has led to a multitude of health problems for both the mother and the child. 

Given the soaring prices, food items that were once common household items are now excessive luxuries. In many cases, what had been a usual weekly grocery shop now equates to months of a family's income.

"The mother might experience anaemia, preeclampsia, haemorrhage, and death during pregnancy, which, when you add the increased medical bills, make routine checks unobtainable and forces the mother to seek alternative therapy"

Nutrition and health experts in Lebanon have warned against the many obstacles that pregnant women in the country are facing. The financial situation is critical and multi-layered. Many women are forced to skip doctors' appointments which are now unaffordable. 

The daily rising pattern of the dollar exchange rate is affecting food prices, making it almost impossible to access the majority of items that every pregnant woman needs

Hitaf Zwein, nutritionist and dietitian based in Lebanon told The New Arab about the risks of a malnutrition diet on the baby and the mother. “The main risks are mainly preterm birth or Small of Gestational Age babies that aren't fully developed. They will need extra care when born due to poor nutrition, and they may have improper brain activity and learning difficulties later in life,” she explains to The New Arab.  

Hitaf also told The New Arab about the health problems that the mother is at risk of facing with malnutrition. “The mother might experience anaemia, preeclampsia, haemorrhage, and death during pregnancy, which, when you add the increased medical bills, make routine checks unobtainable and forces the mother to seek alternative therapy."

Rima Saleh, a mother of two and is pregnant with her third child, tells The New Arab more about the difficulty of being a pregnant woman in Lebanon with the deteriorating financial situation. “I minimised my intake of meat and chicken drastically along with dairy products like cheese and milk as otherwise I wouldn’t be able to afford other food items for my two children as the prices are unimaginable.” 

Rima, like many other pregnant women, is finding that products in the market are harder to find and even surviving on the bare minimum by substituting a meat diet for a vegetarian one,  has become difficult to afford for many. 

Food poverty is on the rise in Lebanon, with the UN now estimating that 78 percent of Lebanese citizens live below the poverty line. 

Charities and aid organisations are struggling to keep up with the surging demand, while the Lebanese government remains drowned in debt. 

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Maya Terro, Co-founder and Executive Director at FoodBlessed, a hunger-relief and food rescue organisation in Lebanon told The New Arab about the significant spike in demand from people trying to get food donations. 

“During this difficult period, FoodBlessed has experienced record levels of cases," she said. Both the number of people and the type of people has changed drastically, after the decimation of the middle class. 

When it comes to chronic hunger and malnutrition, pregnant women and young children are the most vulnerable people. The organisation targets pregnant women with diapers and baby formula milk. 

With the help of community nutritionists, FoodBlessed has ensured it includes food parcels containing at least one month’s worth of nutritionally balanced meals for individuals and families. 

"Food poverty is on the rise in Lebanon, with the UN now estimating that 78% of Lebanese citizens live below the poverty line"

Hospitals have also seen a surge in patients asking for diet plans to circumvent meat, in favour of vegetables and other cheap goods. Mona Hassan, a midwife at a hospital in Lebanon told The New Arab more about the devastating situation of pregnant women. 

In the shadow of the economic crisis, many women can no longer afford to buy not only meat and chicken but also stable food items such as vegetables and fruits, whilst relying mostly on grains, but this will eventually lead to iron deficiency and other problems." 

Mona also explained the crisis is causing anxiety and misery with the severe financial barriers that pregnant women now face, leading to postpartum depression with mothers rejecting their babies and having mental breakdowns. 

The hospital that she works at has noticed the financial difficulties that many women are experiencing, so one of their next coming initiatives will be focused on collecting donations to distribute meat and poultry to those who are in most need.  

With no sign of betterment in Lebanon’s economy, the impact on people is progressively worsening with families finding it more difficult to cope with all the rising expenses and the skyrocketing inflation. 

World aid organisations continue to warn against food hunger in Lebanon, and UNICEF recently released a report with figures of more than half of families having at least one child who skipped a meal in September. That compares to about 37 percent in April 2021. This shows the magnitude of the crisis with more families increasingly lacking access to food

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In a statement, Yukie Mokuo, UNICEF representative in Lebanon said: “I have never seen a child malnourished in this country before, but recently I witnessed myself a child who is suffering from malnutrition.” 

The financial collapse means that many pregnant women can barely afford maternity clothing, with some having to rely on clothing donations or bartering their possessions in exchange for needed items.  

The unfortunate financial situation of many families is harming pregnant women's mental health, with a bleak future for many ahead.

Rodayna Raydan is a Lebanese British journalism graduate from Kingston University in London covering Lebanon.

Follow her on Twitter: @Rodayna_462