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Afghan Female Doctor Reflects on Life Under Taleban, Looks to Future - 2001-12-24

Rahima Zafar Stanekzai is an Afghan woman, a doctor and the director of one of the largest hospitals in Afghanistan.

She ran this hospital during Taleban times too and spoke about the constraints of being a doctor under the Taleban and her hopes and fears for the future of Afghanistan.

The first cries of a baby born into freedom in Kabul, three weeks after the Taleban fled. But he is lucky in many ways. At the hospital where he was born, there is a high incidence of miscarriages and stillbirths.

Dr. Rahima Zafar Stanekzai is the director of Kabul Women's Hospital. She was appointed three years ago by the Taleban, when she was just 29 years old. The doctors here say that when the Taleban's wives and daughters began to get ill, they decided to reverse their ban on women receiving medical treatment, and set up a hospital for women only.

Dr. Rahima says she accepted the appointment - which she did not want - in order to help other women. "I myself never preferred to work as a director. But that was the need of the government. I am a doctor. I can work everywhere. My job is to treat patients," she says.

Dr. Rahima is a renowned internal medicine specialist and a young mother who works closely with her husband, an administrator at the hospital. She says two things attracted her to the profession of medicine. "I like it very much, I can help other people, and it was my father's great ambition," she says.

Doctors are poorly paid in Afghanistan. The salary at the Women's Hospital was $30 per month until the Taleban unilaterally cut that sum in half, in order to save money. Then in July, the Taleban ceased paying salaries altogether, diverting funds to the military instead. But all the staff kept working - keeping the hospital clean and functioning as best they could.

"That is the culture of Afghan people; we never want to work for money. I am a doctor. I should help my poor people. Otherwise what is my job. Even in my private clinic that it is our rule," Dr. Rahima says.

If the practice of medicine in such circumstances was not difficult enough, the politics made it more so. During Taleban times, Dr. Rahima could not attend meetings with the minister of health because she was a woman. She had to send a man instead.

"During Taleban [times] I never go to the ministry for public health. My husband, yes, a man could go, because there was no permission for me to go. It was not good. It was a problem, but there was no remedy, so we should accept it," she says.

All of Dr. Rahima's working life has been spent dealing with the impact of war. She says the most difficult time was during the early 1990's, when Mujaheddin warlords, fighting for control of Kabul, pounded the city with rockets - attacks that cost tens of thousands of lives.

Dr. Rahima treated the victims. "It was very [sad] for me. Every day I examined injured people. We had no electricity for three years - for three consecutive years. NGO's helped the hospital and we had electricity during operations and at night. But we also had problems with water and with sanitation and everything," she says.

Dr. Rahima is aware that some of the Mujaheddin leaders who were responsible for the attacks on Kabul in the early 90s are now part of Afghanistan's new interim government. She says she hopes that they will not repeat the past - or that the international community will not allow them to - so that Afghanistan can have a chance for the peace its people crave, after 23 years of war.