Afghani women thrive with Canadian support

NATO leaders gathered in Chicago on May 20 and 21 to finalize plans to eventually withdraw western ally forces from war-torn Afghanistan.

Even though Afghans will be solely responsible for their country's security by the end of 2014, the women and girls of the Muslim-majority country will continue to be in need of humanitarian assistance from the West for many years to come.

World Vision Canada has been delivering humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan for over ten years and hopes to continue helping the vulnerable beyond 2014.

"We're going to stay there as long as we can operate," says Dave Toycen, President of World Vision Canada. "As long as we can help women and children in the country, we will stay."

World Vision Canada is a nongovernmental organization that delivers both short-term humanitarian aid and long-term development assistance.

Toycen visited Afghanistan in April, reviewing World Vision's projects. He spent a couple of days in the Afghan capital of Kabul meeting with officials from the Canadian International Development Agency, but spent most of his time in the northwestern province of Herat.

"Our work is really centered in Herat and in the two neighbouring provinces of Ghor and Badghis," Toycen told ChristianWeek in an interview.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, and the people there have many needs. Currently, World Vision Canada is focussed on improving child and maternal health, Toycen says.

Afghanistan has the second highest maternal death rate in the world. Approximately one in 70 Afghan women won't survive childbirth, or will die from pregnancy-related complications. The situation is especially dire in Badghis, where the maternal death rate is a staggering one in 40.

There are many reasons why maternal and child death rates are so distressingly high in Afghanistan. For example, few Afghan women have access to trained midwives when giving birth, says Toycen. The lack of access to health clinics is another risk factor for pregnant women, who are often weakened by poor nutrition and multiple births.

Culture also plays a role in the high maternal and child death rate. "Oftentimes," says Toycen, "the girls are married very young." Giving birth at an early age is dangerous for both mother and baby.

"And in some cases, there's even resistance culturally to have that [prenatal] kind of monitoring as part of their health protocols amongst women, especially who are living in remote areas," Toycen says.

World Vision Canada is helping to turn things around by training Afghan women to be midwives. The NGO also provides nutrition programs for expectant mothers and newborns.

Christian Aid UK, a Christian nongovernmental organization which is also active in Afghanistan, is similarly dedicated to reducing the country's high child and maternal death rates.

"Through working with trained midwives and health workers Christian Aid is helping to reduce the maternal mortality ratio,"Serena Di Matteo, the NGOs's director for Afghanistan, told ChristianWeek in an interview.

The United Kingdom-based charity is making a real difference in the lives of Afghan women and babies by helping to "increase the proportion of births attended by skilled personal," says Di Matteo.

Changing traditional practices

Di Matteo points out that there are "still many traditional cultural practices which cause an increase in childhood deaths."

"For example, it is common for babies to be washed in freezing cold water after birth which can cause pneumonia...Or babies are placed on an unclean floor to ward off evil spirits and few women breastfeed in the first few days as it is seen as dirty."

Christian Aid UK is attempting to introduce healthy practices into Afghan culture by working with local groups and individuals. "These people are not seen as outsiders but are accepted by the community," Di Matteo says. That means "religious leaders and husbands" will not prevent local health care providers from doing their work.

"Our local Afghan partners all routinely run health and hygiene training, particularly for women, as part of their work to challenge these perceptions," Di Matteo explains. "It is hoped that this information will then be passed down from generation to generation.

Importance of education

Education is the key to a healthier future for the women and children of Afghanistan.

Prior to the NATO-led ouster of the Taliban regime in late 2001, girls in Afghanistan were forbidden from attending school. As of 2011, 2.2 million girls were enrolled in school, according to the Canadian government web site.

"Female illiteracy and lack of education mean that women do not know to vaccinate their children, or how to bring them through what we might consider to be ordinary child illnesses such as diarrhea or chickenpox," Di Matteo notes.

Uneducated and illiterate women often don't know their legal rights, putting them at greater risk of domestic violence, according to Christian Aid UK.

"By providing women with an education," says Di Matteo, "they are better equipped to know their rights and to contribute to their future, their families' future and the future of their country."

World Vision Canada is also doing its part to educate Afghani children, helping to support over 300 schools in the Muslim-majority country.

"We know from past experience that one of the most important things is for girls to get educated, because it opens them up to a wider world," he says. "And that's certainly happening [in Afghanistan]."

Attacks on Afghan school girls

Recent militant attacks on hundreds of schools girls have underscored the misogynistic attitudes that pervade Afghani culture and impede female education.

Christian Aid UK actively supports the right of girls to attend school, promoting progressive attitudes at the community level.

"Fathers, husbands and other family members can fear lack of control if women are given more rights," says Di Matteo. "But discussing the benefits of women's education to male members of society can change the mentality toward women and girls, and promote the right to an education."

More girls and women are being educated than ever before in Afghanistan. However, says Di Matteo, "in poorer rural areas, women have little or no access to education."In response, Christian Aid UK is providing literacy classes in the countryside.

No going back

By advancing child and maternal health as well as promoting education for girls, both Christian NGOs are measurably improving the lives of Afghani females.

"From my experience," says Toycen, "that's something that will not go backwards, because the women themselves are seeing more of their babies living. They're also seeing opportunities where they can think and contribute in their society in ways that they haven't before."

During his visit to Afghanistan, Toycen met with community leaders and Muslim clerics. He was encouraged by their supposed enthusiasm for World Vision's work on education and maternal health, as well as HIV/AIDS.

"I felt really chastened by this visit," Toycen says. "I was chastened by the fact that we mustn't let the violence and conflict totally cloud our thinking, so we take on the perspective that we can't really do anything until there's peace in the country."

He is quick to point out that World Vision has helped nearly 300,000 women get access to prenatal care or secure the services of a midwife.

"I came away with the experience of being proud of the work we're doing at World Vision with women and children," he says.

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About the author

Special to ChristianWeek

Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian rights journalist. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.