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High Maternal Death Rate Overshadows International Women's Day in Afghanistan

  • Sean Maroney

March 8 marks International Women's Day. Hundreds of events are held throughout the world to inspire women and celebrate their achievements. The United Nations says the theme of this year's celebration is "Equal rights, equal opportunities: Progress for all."

Four years ago on International Women's Day, the Afghan government unveiled a plan for accelerating the improvement of women's status in the country.

Today, almost one-fourth of the Afghan parliament is female. President Hamid Karzai also has selected three women as members of his new Cabinet.

And while the Afghan government expects more than 3.2 million girls to enroll in school this year, the country's acting Public Health Minister Suraya Dalil says improvements are needed to ensure their future wellbeing.

On average, an Afghan woman will get pregnant six times during her reproductive years. Dalil says officials are working to educate people on contraception, but only 15 percent of couples use one sort of family planning. Dalil says this contributes to a harsh statistic.

"Every 30 minutes one woman in Afghanistan dies from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. So that is [a] really alarming figure," she noted.

Many women around the country lack access to hospitals like the ones in the capital, Kabul. So it is up to the government to bring the medical care to them.

"One of the strategies to address maternal mortality is to increase skilled birth attendants," she added. "That means midwives, nurses and physicians to assist deliveries."

Skilled birthing attendants are present at 25 to 30 percent of births in Afghanistan. Dalil says the government hopes to expand its midwife training programs and install these professionals in local communities.

Also this year, the Afghan government, along with its international partners, is launching a new mortality study. Dalil participated in the last study in 2002, which she says uncovered some shocking results.

"It found that in Badakhshan the maternal mortality issue was 6,500 [deaths] per 100,000 live births and that is the highest ever documented in human history," she explained.

Dalil says she hopes the new study will highlight improvements that can lead to lasting achievements for women's health. But she stresses that the Afghan government needs a combination of international and public support for health advancements before the overall well-being of women in the country can show real progress.