'May no mother grieve'

For Afghan people recovering from decades of war, even basic necessities cannot be taken for granted

For Afghan people recovering from decades of war, even basic necessities cannot be taken for granted

April 29, 2002|BY KATE COLEMAN

Recently, kits consisting of clean plastic sheets and sterile razors were delivered to 15 health clinics in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The kits are meant to cover the dirt floor where a woman will lie down to give birth. The sterile razor blade is to cut the umbilical cord.

The kits were provided by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), said William A. Ryan, spokesperson for the agency. The next problem is getting women to the clinics to get those kits.

In Afghanistan, one of the world's poorest countries - a country that has endured 23 years of war and devastation, five years of Taliban authority, drought and earthquakes - plastic sheets and razor blades can save lives.


"The vast majority (of Afghans) have no health care at all," said Ryan, who was in Kabul last month.

UNFPA's work is focused on health care - particularly women's health care.

Most babies are delivered at home. If the woman is lucky, there will be someone with some birthing training in attendance, Ryan said. For the 15,000 women a year who die from pregnancy-related causes, help does not arrive in time.

Many are not lucky. The maternal mortality rate is the second highest in the world.

"For every 1,000 live births, 17 women die of pregnancy-related complications," according to information on the UNFPA Web site.

There is a lack of access to services and little access to family planning, Ryan said. There is no prenatal care. The country's fertility rate is high. Families have an average of seven children, and women typically have two, three, even four miscarriages. And the infant mortality rate is also high.

A different country

"It's very sad," said Ali Jalali, who recently returned to his native Afghanistan after a 22-year exile. Jalali was a member of resistance forces fighting the Soviets. He had fled to Pakistan, where he continued his work underground as a military planner.

"The country was not the one I knew," he said.

Jalali has lived in the United States for 20 years. He directs Afghan programming for Voice of America, the U.S. Government-funded international broadcasting service.

"It was all destruction - not just buildings, but destruction of the culture," said Jalali.

Sima Wali also grieves for the Afghanistan that has been lost. Wali, president of Refugee Women in Development Inc., fled Afghanistan in 1978. She was the only member of her family to escape.

She came to her "American family," the family of Richard Haag, of whose Peace Corps staff she was a member.

Haag, now assistant professor of psychology at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., invited Wali to speak at the university March 27.

Afghanistan is a country with an inherently rich culture - a culture of courage and compassion, Wali said.

"I can testify to the courage and strength of the Afghan people," she said.

Afghan women had the right to vote in the 1920s. Wali grew up with pride in her identity, with strong female role models.

No man could stand up to her grandmother, she recalled with a smile.

And then the Taliban usurped the official government's authority and changed everything.

"The Taliban was not the elected government of Afghanistan," Wali said. The country, she said, was held hostage by the Taliban.

The Taliban created a gender apartheid, Wali said.

A resourceful people

But the stereotype of Afghan men as women haters is wrong, Wali said emphatically. "Most Afghan men are committed to the freedom of Afghan women. They are part of the solution, not part of the problem," she said.

The Taliban is no longer in control, but while Ryan was in Kabul, he noticed the vast majority of women were still wearing burkhas - the head-to-toe-covering garments the Taliban required women to wear. He asked them why.

The question seemed like an annoyance. "It's not an issue for us," he was told by the women he asked.

Security, the horrendous risks of pregnancy, the lack of health care are more pressing concerns for Afghan women.

Education also is a concern. Schools in Afghanistan reopened in March, and Ali Jalali was there to witness it.

Students, including girls who had been banned from education by the Taliban, returned enthusiastically to schools without furniture, schools without supplies.

"They were so joyful - just to be able to go back to school," Jalali said. "I couldn't resist my tears."

But the conflict is not over, Ryan said. "What do you need?" he asked every Afghan he talked to.

"We need peace and stability here," they all told him.

Hope for the future

Four million Afghans, the majority of them women, are refugees in neighboring countries, Wali said. Another 1.5 million people are displaced within the country, she added.

Do the Afghan people have hope for the future?

In spite of continued political uncertainty, Ryan sees evidence of such hope in the return to Afghanistan of more than 300,000 refugees from camps on the Pakistani border in the last eight weeks.

The Afghan people are very resourceful. "They are eager to get on with things," Ryan said.

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