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Health of Women at Stake in Afghan Health Crisis

Women in Afghanistan are suffering “catastrophic” maternal death rates, according to the most recent comprehensive surveys of the country’s state of health, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Management Sciences for Health, a non-profit based in Boston, in cooperation with the Afghan Health Ministry. Though the data is still being analyzed, medical experts believe that Afghanistan may now be experiencing the worst maternal mortality rates in the world, according to the New York Times. The current estimate is 1,700 maternal deaths per 100,000 births, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), second only to Sierra Leone. However, a new nationwide census is currently underway, for the first time on over 20 years.

Preliminary results from the surveys show that complications from pregnancy or childbirth were associated with about half of all deaths of women of reproductive age from 1998 to 2002. Lack of education, electricity, and access to clean water, sanitation, and medical care compound the situation for Afghanistan’s women. In addition, more than 85 percent of all Afghans live in villages, and only 30 percent of those residents have access to a radio, which is often the most effective means of transmitting information about public health services and practices in developing countries, according to the Times.

The vast majority of Afghan women give birth with no medical assistance and receive no prenatal care, both because of lingering effects from the Taliban’s control of the country as well as the sheer poverty of many women in the country, particularly those in rural villages, according to the Washington Post. Many foreign and Afghan health experts worry that with the recent focus of the United States on Iraq, Afghanistan will be forgotten as it was when the Soviet forces left the country in 1989, according to the Times. Recently, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah visited the United States to urge US officials to fulfill promises of humanitarian and reconstruction aid that would improve the overall situation for Afghanistan. Nations pledged $4.5 billion in aid to Afghanistan in January with $1.8 billion for this year alone – one-third of which has yet to be delivered. Abdullah noted that a significant portion of these pledges was made in the form of credit rather than grants. The United States government is still debating long-term financial commitments to Afghanistan. While the House approved $1.15 billion over four years, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved a bill that would increase funding to $2 billion for humanitarian aid and $1 billion to expand international peacekeeping troops. The full Senate has yet to vote on this bill.

LEARN MORE Click here to read women's narratives about barriers or successes in accessing reproductive health and family planning services.

Media Resources: New York Times 10/27/02; Washington Post 9/26/02; UNFPA 8/16/02; Feminist Daily News Wire

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