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Women's Health at Center of Development, Security Goals in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, a woman dies every 27 minutes on average from a pregnancy-related condition that is preventable, in most cases, with proper health facilities. Afghan and U.S. officials speaking in Washington Tuesday said providing Afghan women greater access to health care would not only improve quality of life, but the security situation as well.

The health challenges facing women and children in Afghanistan are nothing short of alarming. According to statistics from the U.S. government, Afghanistan has the highest infant mortality rate in the world and the second-highest maternal mortality rate.

At a briefing on Capitol Hill, the U.S. State Department's Ambassador-at-large for Global Women's Issues, Melanne Verveer, said women in Afghanistan are facing formidable obstacles.

"They are dying because medical facilities lack the equipment or the means to provide care under the best circumstances and in other circumstances because they lack electricity," she said.

She also said deeply engrained cultural attitudes toward women in Afghanistan often prevent them from getting the care they need.

The Afghan government has been working to fix these problems. Veveer informed the audience that President Hamid Karzai has recently signed a bill aimed at eliminating violence against women. She said the legislation includes a measure that would make it a crime for a husband to prevent his wife from receiving health care.

Afghanistan's Minister for Public Health, Sayed Mohammed Amin Fatimie, speaking at the event, said improving health care is crucial to his country's development and security goals.

"I do believe that health is at the center of [the] social-economic development of Afghanistan," he said. "Health is a bridge to peace. Health is a corridor for tranquility."

While acknowledging that Afghanistan has a lot of work to do, he says health care services have improved since a U.S.-led military mission overthrew the Taliban government in 2001. He says since then, for example, the number of midwives and female nurses has increased from about 100, to more than 2,400.

He added that improving health facilities is not just about repairing the damage done by the Taliban and other extremists, but can be a key strategy for combating their influence.

"Even the enemies, you know, receive the health services in our facilities," said Fatimie. "That is why our facilities are there and deliver health services. So that is why we can promote peace; we can convince the ones that are confused to take the side of the Afghan government."

Despite the efforts to promote health care, the Group of Eight leading world industrial powers recently expressed concerns about the Afghan government's effectiveness. In a statement issued last week in Italy, G 8 foreign ministers said widespread corruption and insecurity in Afghanistan complicate the delivery of basic services including health and education.