Birth and Death: Afghanistan's Struggles with Maternal Mortality

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Ted Richardson

Salamudin, 36, center, waits at a pharmacy in the Afghan town of Bamiyan on May, 30, 2011, with his wife Bakhtawar, 22, and their 1-year-old son Surodin. Salamudin allowed his wife to give birth in a hospital

When Fawzia went into labor with her fifth child, she knew something was wrong. She felt like her insides were being ripped apart by knives. She bled so much that her clothes were soaked. "I did not want to die," recalls Fawzia, 25, who, like many rural Afghans, only uses one name. "I prayed and hoped the pain would go away. But when it didn't, I asked to go to a hospital."

Fawzia, an ethnic Hazara from Jaghori district in the volatile center-east province of Ghazni, had never been to a hospital, and says she had no idea where to find one. She had given birth to her other children at home, and the closest clinic is a two-hour drive away. When she got there, the staff said they couldn't help her. Go to Kabul, they said. It took another 10 hours to drive to Rabia Balkhi, a women's hospital in central Kabul that offers free services to impoverished women.

By then, Fawzia had lost so much blood that doctors were worried she wouldn't make it. Dr. Taiba Motaqi, 30, a resident in obstetrics, knew right away that the young woman had a ruptured uterus. The complication is rare among pregnant women in the developed world, but it kills many Afghan women each year. Fawzia underwent an emergency C-section, a common procedure at Rabia Balkhi Hospital. "Women come here with problems like this at the very last minute," Dr. Motaqi says. "We have to work quickly to save them."

When Fawzia got married 10 years ago, the Taliban were still running Afghanistan, and women's rights were at a nadir. Most women gave birth at home, and the few who managed to venture to hospitals often discovered that the facilities were understaffed and lacked equipment and medicine. In late 2001, the U.S.-led military campaign pushed the Taliban out of power, and since then, millions of dollars in U.S. and foreign aid have gone to help build clinics and hospitals and train health workers. It was supposed to be a new beginning for Afghan women marginalized by the Taliban's brutal and theocratic rule. But a decade later, Afghanistan still ranks as the worst country in the world to be a mother.

About 18,000 Afghan women die during childbirth every year, says the Afghan Health Ministry. According to a recent report by the NGO Save the Children, Afghanistan ranked as the worst place to give birth, followed by Niger and Chad. In these countries, 60% of all births are not attended to by skilled health professionals. On average, about 1 in 23 mothers are expected to die from pregnancy-related causes. Children also die young and suffer from malnutrition, and education for girls is poor.

Often the challenge is just getting women to hospitals. Rural Afghans, even in relatively progressive provinces like Bamiyan in central Afghanistan, are suspicious or dismissive of doctors. In the town of Bamiyan, the main hospital has a new maternity ward. But head midwife Sediqa Hosseini says many of the 25 beds in the ward are often empty. On a recent summer afternoon, Hosseini, a tiny, serious woman in a baby blue headscarf, greets the 12 women who have checked in. One is Fatima, a 25-year-old farmer's wife. "When Fatima arrived, her baby was coming out shoulder first," Hosseini says. "She had to have a C-section. Without help, both of them would have died."

Fatima says her husband took her to the hospital when her labor became so painful that she was doubled over. Hosseini says few husbands would have done the same. Many rural men prefer to pray with a mullah to cure illnesses, she says. "They believe this is more reliable than medicine." As she breast-feeds her newborn daughter, Fatima says she wouldn't have gone if it had not been for a community-health worker who told her hospitals are safe and free.

Adding to the problem is that rural Afghan women are also conservative, and some are ashamed of being pregnant because it's a public acknowledgement of sex with their spouses, says Gulpari, a midwife in Bamiyan's remote Sayghan district. Sayghan is a dusty, wind-lashed stretch of bare mountains, cratered dirt roads and some 60-odd villages of compact mud huts. Gulpari lives in the village of Khudadadkhel, where she works at the small, understaffed Sayghan clinic that mostly treats stomach ailments and lung diseases.

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