UN News Centre, March 3, 2008

Maternal health biggest challenge facing Afghan women – UN agency

Violence against women affects 80 per cent of women at some time in their lives

Some 24,000 Afghan women die every year while giving birth, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which is working with the Government and other partners to reduce maternal mortality and improve the overall health of women and girls in the war-torn nation.

In hospital

Abused by husband
Feb.26, 2008: 22-y old Fatima who has been abused and injured by her cruel husband in Herat - Western Afghanistan.

“The biggest challenge that Afghan women face is maternal health and high maternal mortality,” Ramesh Penumaka, UNFPA Country Representative in Afghanistan, told journalists in Kabul today.

Mr. Penumaka noted that 1,600 out of every 100,000 women that give birth die in the process. “That is a staggering 24,000 a year, about 25 times the number of people dying of security-related violent incidents,” he stated.

The reasons why so many Afghan women die while giving birth range from early marriage – more than half the girls are married before they are 18 – and lack of health facilities and skilled birth attendants to lack of education.

Noting some of the progress made in recent years, Mr. Penumaka said that there are today 16,000 community health workers and a sizeable increase in the number of institutions training local midwives.

Last year, 30 per cent of pregnant women received some kind of attention from a health professional, up from only 4 per cent in 2001. And while only 6 per cent of deliveries were conducted by a skilled attendant in 2001, that number was 80 per cent last year.

“The progress made is significant but nowhere near sufficient,” he stated, noting that 40 per cent of mothers do not have access to an emergency obstetric care service and not all women have access to skilled birth attendants.

UNFPA is working with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on a joint programme for maternal mortality reduction. It is also helping the Ministry of Public Health to develop action plans for maternal health and emergency obstetric care, increase the number of skilled birth attendants, and train doctors and midwives.

As the problems relating to maternal health cannot be tackled by women alone, UNFPA is also working with men who have a vital role to play in ensuring the health and well-being of their mothers, sisters and wives.

The statistics in the report from Womankind, Afghan Women and Girls Seven Years On, make shocking reading. Violent attacks against females, usually domestic, are at epidemic proportions with 87 per cent of females complaining of such abuse – half of it sexual. More than 60 per cent of marriages are forced.
The Independent, Feb.25, 2008

In addition, in cooperation with the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and other agencies, UNFPA is working to eliminate violence against women, which affects 80 per cent of women at some time in their lives, according to Mr. Penumaka. “This is a major challenge that all of us need to confront, and especially those of us who are men.”

Ziad Sheikh, Deputy Director at UNIFEM Afghanistan, drew attention to the recent establishment of a special fund for the elimination of violence against women, an initiative undertaken in partnership with UN partner agencies, the donor community and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.

The special fund will be formally launched on 8 March, which is observed annually as International Women’s Day.

In a related development, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has received a $13 million grant from Japan to help improve literacy in Afghanistan, which has one of the highest rates of illiteracy in the world.

The grant will enable UNESCO to help almost 600,000 Afghans in 18 provinces who cannot read or write through its Literacy Initiative for Empowerment (LIFE) programme.

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