Access to healthcare, safe delivery services, gynaecological services, antenatal and postnatal care should be minimal basic rights for women worldwide. Despite dramatic progress in this area with global maternal deaths having dropped from 543,000 a year in 1990 to 287,000 in 2010, we still have a long way to go in providing access to maternal health for all..

However, the work of the Holy Family Hospital in the West Bank is bringing us one step closer to this goal.

In the centre of Bethlehem, a mere 500 metres away from the exact spot where Jesus is thought to have been born, lies the Holy Family Hospital – a state of the art hospital founded by the Order of Malta in 1990 that provides maternal, neo-natal and infant care for women in the West Bank and beyond.  In a region that is fraught with political, historical and religious tension, the fate of women without access to a safe environment to give birth is often forgotten.  

Women in the West Bank carry a heavier burden in life than women in developing countries. The average Palestinian woman gives birth to 6 children and is married by the age of 18. In addition to this, educational information about what to expect before giving birth of after your eight, ninth or tenth birth is limited.   

The Holy Family Hospital has ambitious plans to grow and is setting up new initiatives in the area of maternal health such as a programme to educate women in the West Bank about the health risks associated to menopause, and encourage women to go for regular check-ups even after they can no longer give birth. This is a far greater challenge in the West Bank where the culture of women going for regular health check-ups after child-bearing age simply does not exist.      

As Dr Jacques Keutgen, Managing Director of the Hospital claims: “the education level of women and the surrounding community is one of the major issues affecting women’s decisions to seek medical care during their life.” 

The Holy Family Hospital is the primary maternity centre for the Bethlehem area and surrounding towns, villages, refugee camps and Bedouin settlements.  In fact, twenty-give percent of the women served at the hospital reside in refugee camps.

The Hospital is also the first point of referral for high-risk pregnancies and neonates and receives patients from far beyond the Bethlehem district due to its expertise in this area.

Importantly – no woman is ever turned away from the hospital, regardless of race, religion, colour, culture or the ability to pay for medical treatment.    

As was stated by an anonymous author between 1155 and 1187:   

“Consciously and with foresight, the Convent of the Holy Family Hospital in Jerusalem confides its patients to the science and to the devoted care of physicians and surgeons. Indeed, the Holy Family Hospital is conscientious, because it makes sure that in this House of God, the sick people miss nothing which the existing human resources could bring them as an advantage.”   

The Fund team had the honour of visiting the Holy Family Hospital last week and saw firsthand that this philosophy and ethic of care is still true today.   

Mothers are entrusted to the best medical team and are treated with the utmost care and respect whether they can afford to pay for their medical care or not.

The Fund team joined Holy Family Hospital staff on their weekly journey in their outreach mobile clinic to Rashaida, a Bedouin village with high poverty levels.  Every week, at the same time, the mobile clinic van stops for a few hours in the middle of the desert and waits for Bedouin women who need healthcare to approach the van and seek treatment.        

Matti Navellou, who works for the International Fund Office said: “Watching heavily pregnant Bedouin women from Raishada walk from their homes across the Judean desert in the scorching heat of the Palestinian sun to reach the mobile clinic in order to have a basic pregnancy check-up was eye-opening. These women would have no access to maternal healthcare without the work of the Holy Family Hospital as the majority can’t afford to travel to Bethlehem, let alone pay for the medical costs of a safe delivery. Many of the families in Rashaida live in a state of severe poverty without sanitation, light or access to clean drinking water. We are proud to be supporting such a crucial initiative in the West Bank through our grant to the Holy Family Hospital and hope that others will be inspired to support their laudable work.”        

A film highlighting the work of the Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem is available on our homepage.