As Afghanistan's future unfolds, concerns turn to women's health

WASHINGTON — Just hours after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated her commitment to protecting Afghan women's rights at an international conference in Kabul, members of women's advocacy groups met Tuesday on Capitol Hill to discuss progress and issues concerning Afghan women's health.

Speakers in Washington highlighted the increased number of midwives in the country since the U.S.-led invasion, while saying that more needs to be done to protect Afghan women during childbirth. Afghanistan has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world, after Sierra Leone.

"They are part of our national security," said Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif. "The women who are (in Afghanistan who) can change their communities can also provide the kind of security that we seek."

The status of women in Afghanistan has become more prominent recently, as the Taliban regime, which stoned women for adultery and harassed women for failing to wear enshrouding burqas, has grown in power and influence again.

Since 2003, more than 1,400 midwives have graduated from U.S.-supported programs, accounting for about half the midwives in Afghanistan, said Melanne Verveer, the ambassador-at-large for global women's issues at the State Department.

"One of the approaches to ending terrorism in our world is by empowering women and making them full members of their society so they can speak for education, health care, justice and fairness," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., a co-chair of the International Women's Issues Task Force.

Life expectancy for women in Afghanistan is among the worst in the world, at 44 years, Verveer said. Factors such as young pregnancies, lack of professional health care and cultural views on childbirth contribute to this number.

One out of eight women in Afghanistan face the risk of dying from childbirth, Verveer said. However, postpartum hemorrhage, the leading cause of maternal mortality in Afghanistan, has decreased recently because of education and better health care, said Dr. Nasratullah Ansari, the technical director of an Afghanistan health services support project.

With U.S. soldiers preoccupied with keeping the Taliban at bay, Clinton's meeting with female Afghan leaders has put the U.S. commitment to Afghan women in the international spotlight.

The U.S. government has promised $37 million for Afghan women's health over the next four years, with the goal of doubling the number of trained midwives.

"We do indeed have reasons to be hopeful that we have the tools and knowledge to address the issue of maternal mortality,"' Verveer said.


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