The years of Taliban control have decimated Afghanistan’s healthcare system. Since the Taliban’s fall in 2001, civil wars and internal conflict have made it difficult for the Afghan system to rebound. Almost 800 medical care centers have closed in the past ten years due to strife, and surveys indicate that 40 percent of people living in Afghanistan are unable to access healthcare services. While the struggle for adequate healthcare affects everyone in Afghanistan, it hits women the hardest. In order to strengthen the country’s infrastructure, it is crucial to improve women’s healthcare in Afghanistan.
Under the Taliban, male doctors and nurses were only allowed to touch female patients above their clothing and women were not educated in any facet, especially regarding healthcare practices. While the Taliban has since fallen, these practices still remain ingrained in the culture of Afghanistan. Many people still consider women’s healthcare in Afghanistan the worst worldwide. The projected lifespan for an Afghan woman is about 52 years, which is decades lower than the projected lifespan for a female living in the United States.
The most pressing issue regarding women’s healthcare in Afghanistan consistently remains healthcare during pregnancy and childbirth. Living in one of the most dangerous countries to give birth, around half a million Afghan women die in childbirth every year. This is a result of poor healthcare, a lack of access to healthcare services and a large number of child mothers. Additionally, around 20 percent of women are malnourished, which often results in a premature delivery. The low quality of women’s healthcare in Afghanistan impacts Afghan children as well, and 396 out of 100,000 babies do not survive.
These statistics are incredibly discouraging, but a closer inspection of the numbers can provide much hope for women’s healthcare in Afghanistan. From 2000 to 2010, the death rate of mothers giving birth plummeted from 1,600 deaths per 100,000 births to 327 deaths per 100,000 births. The mortality rate of children under the age of five dropped from 257 deaths per 1,000 children born alive to 97 deaths per 1,000 children born alive. Life expectancy, access to vaccinations and access to clean drinking water has also improved. The statistics are still grim but show substantial progress and encouragement for the healthcare initiatives that have taken place in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban.
There are several reasons for the improvements to Afghanistan’s healthcare system. The government has worked with the European Union, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the World Bank to provide better healthcare to the Afghan people. Through their funding, women’s access to healthcare in Afghanistan has improved substantially from the zero percent that could access it a little over a decade ago.
The Ministry of Public Health in Afghanistan has also made significant strides through SEHAT, the System Enhancement for Health Action in Transition. This program trains women to be nurses and midwives, empowering them to serve their community and reducing the number of women who die because their husbands will not let them be treated by male healthcare workers.
Several other organizations have also funded projects to support health in Afghanistan. The Red Cross sponsors clean water and healthy food initiatives throughout rural provinces. UNICEF funds and supports healthcare teams that travel throughout the country in order to provide care for women, particularly those living in rural areas, who cannot travel to a hospital.
It is important to understand that the healthcare crisis in Afghanistan is incredibly real, and action needs to be taken to save the lives of the Afghan people who are dying because of inadequate access to healthcare, a large number of whom are women. However, the progress that has been made in Afghanistan over the last twenty years provides proof that things can and will get better through continued healthcare initiatives.
– Julia McCartney