Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
As the world watches Russia continue its unprovoked and vicious attack on Ukraine, no images have captured the hellishness of war quite as starkly as those taken in the aftermath of Russian troops bombing a maternity hospital in Mariupol.
In one photo, a pregnant woman with a bloodied face is staggering out of a bombed building; in another, an ashen-faced woman lays on a stretcher, her left hand cradling her full belly.
The woman in the second photo and her baby have now both died of their injuries.
War is hell for everyone it visits – no matter their age, gender, race or nationality. But women, and particularly women of reproductive age, often experience war differently than men do.
They face particular risks – rape chief among them. And they bear particular burdens: Men are more likely to risk their lives to fight; women are more likely to be left behind, trying to shepherd children to safety and, if they survive, trying to rebuild a world fallen apart.
Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable. Already, pregnancy and childbirth put women’s lives at risk. We know that armed conflicts send maternal mortality rates skyrocketing – when a country is at war, it’s no surprise that pregnant women can’t get health care.
Pregnant women in war zones are also, like everyone else, under tremendous stress – but that level of stress can have deadly results for mother or baby. And pregnant women, and particularly those who are having complications, simply may not be able to escape when violence strikes.
This was the case with many women at the Ukrainian maternity hospital: How are you supposed to run away from a war if you’re in the hospital seeking care for yourself and your baby?
Armed conflicts also keep maternal mortality rates high even after the violence subsides. Sometimes, this is the result of trying to have a baby after suffering serious injuries from rape and other forms of sexual violence.
Sometimes, it’s related to violence at home from male partners, themselves often traumatized from war. Sometimes, it’s the result of a post-conflict area having its infrastructure and its economy decimated and women paying the price.
Sometimes it’s the result of chronic illness from the stressors of war. Whatever the cause, one thing is clear: Women carry the trauma of war in their bodies, and sometimes it kills them.
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Most mammals, including human ones, protect their young. And for humans, it feels instinctive to protect pregnant women – that’s why the photos of the maternity hospital attack are so shocking and disturbing, and why Russia is quickly trying to claim (falsely and offensively) that the photos were faked.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine is abhorrent; its attack on a maternity hospital takes the inhuman to a new level of monstrousness. As the world watches and the US and other nations are paralyzed into inaction by the threat of nuclear war, we can at the very least consider how to structure our humanitarian aid to serve the needs of all civilians – and especially the vulnerable ones, including pregnant and postpartum women.
And the international community can make it a priority to hold perpetrators of war crimes – things like bombing maternity hospitals – fully accountable.
But only Russia can make the decision to halt this obscene war. When a nation is behaving so shockingly that its leaders have to lie to their own citizens about their nation’s evil acts – when a country is bombing a hospital for pregnant women and their babies – we can only hope that the soldiers and the men dispatching them (from their own perches of privilege and safety) might look around and ask what exactly it is they’re fighting for.