Saving Afghan Women: The Unseen Victims

I keep seeing news stories about terrible health conditions in Afghanistan. Most of these stories, like the one in the Washington Post on June 29, talk about war victims who die from untreated wounds because doctors are being shot and clinics are destroyed for treating people the shooters don't like.

But the stories are only part of the full picture: the country's women are disproportionately the victims of the destruction of Afghanistan's health infrastructure. Because the health care situation is so bad, Afghanistan's maternal mortality rate is tied with Sierra Leone's as the worst in the world: one in every six Afghan women will die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth, according to the World Health Organization. Compare that to the U.S. rate of one in every 2,500 women and the Swedish rate of one in 29,800

It doesn't have to be like this. We know what to do to save these lives. That's why Family Care International is coordinating Women Deliver, a landmark global conference in London next October that will focus on creating political will to save the lives and improve the health of women, mothers and newborn babies around the world.

In Afghanistan and many other places, news media and governments seem oblivious to the daily tragedy of maternal mortality, which kills one woman every single minute of every day. Worldwide, we lose ten million women in every generation needlessly this way – wives and mothers, aunts and sisters, neighbors and friends. We also lose four million newborns every year, also from causes that are mainly preventable.

From October 18-20 at London's ExCel Centre, some 2,000 world leaders will hear this message: "Invest in Women: It Pays!" With increased political will and adequate financial investment, most women and newborns can survive so that their families, communities and nations can thrive.

The proof is in places like Afghanistan. If U.S. aid and the Afghan government had decided to invest in keeping Afghan women alive, and not just in making war, the country would now have at least a bare-bones health care system that would serve not just pregnant women, but everyone! They would also have a generation of healthy women who deliver in many other ways: paychecks, creativity, energy for economic production, for teaching, for reducing poverty, for the thousand other things all development advocates want and that families and communities need.

Pregnant women survive where they have access to basic health care, skilled caregivers such as midwives, and emergency care facilities with equipment for safe blood transfusions and surgeries. Those are the same things that keep everyone else alive, in daily life and in emergencies.

At the Women Deliver conference, governments – including the U.S. government – will get the message: investing in women pays off, no matter what your other needs might be. Without healthy women, other investments won't be as effective, sustainable, or long-lasting. That is why Millennium Development Goal #5 – to improve maternal health – is sometimes called the heart of the MDGs: the things needed for its achievement have so many other benefits. And if it fails, all the other MDGs will fail too.

The New York Times on July 12 lamented the Taliban's targeting of Afghanistan's public schools and called on the U.S. government to invest much more in teachers, school construction and security for them. It noted that schools and thousands of new school-going girls are "one of the new government's proudest achievements and sources of hope."

That is certainly true, but it is a mystery to me why maternal and newborn health doesn't receive the same kind of consistent media attention. Pregnancies don't take time-outs to await solutions to political struggles, and meanwhile every generation loses ten million women worldwide. It's a real tragedy, and not just in Afghanistan.

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    For the visuals on this story, check out this Lana Slezic photo essay on Afghan women in Mother Jones:

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    That is an incredibly powerful series of photos. Beautifully and painfully illustrative of the female experience in Afghanistan today. I desperately hope we don’t lose sight of their struggles and focus on very concrete ways to help, as Jill points out in her post.

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    Your piece is extremely important at a time when the poignant situation in Afghanistan, if allowed to continue, holds the threat of it becoming a forgotten land comprising of forgotten widows and orphans. Girls are getting married off at an even younger age due to the extreme poverty. The bride price earned from one little girl keeps the food on the table for the rest of the family for some time at least. On the other hand it means legitimized sexual and physical abuse for the extremely young bride. The only way many cope is through their dependence on drugs which is so easily available in the country. A lethal mix of the trade in drugs, humans and human organs across well-entrenched trafficking routes has sucked these young girls and children into extreme abuse and exploitation.