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UNICEF applauds progress on women's health in Afghanistan

One year since key report on maternal health, agency calls for renewed commitment

KABUL, 7 November 2003, – Exactly twelve months after the publication of a milestone report on the situation of maternal health in Afghanistan, UNICEF today has applauded its partners on the important progress made in safeguarding the lives of Afghanistan’s women.

The 2002 report, produced jointly by UNICEF with the Afghan Ministry of Health and the Centres for Disease Control, found that the maternal mortality ratio in Afghanistan stood at 1,600 deaths per 100,000 live births – and in the northeastern province of Badakhshan the highest maternal mortality ratio ever recorded was registered, standing at 6,500 deaths per 100,000 live births. That equates to one woman dying ever 20 minutes in Afghanistan as a result of complications in childbirth or pregnancy.

One of the major priorities of the Afghan Ministry of Health and UNICEF in 2003 has been to increase the coverage, utilization and quality of emergency obstetric care across the country. The lack of adequate maternal health care facilities close to communities was one cause of Afghanistan’s high rate of maternal mortality cited in the 2002 report. Over the last year, work has been undertaken to ensure that at least 28 provinces in Afghanistan will have functional emergency obstetric care centres by the end of 2003. This initiative has been spearheaded by the upgrading of Afghanistan’s largest maternal health facility, Malalai Maternity Hospital in Kabul, which is now classified as a Centre of Excellence in maternal health, boasting newly-equipped delivery rooms, operating theatres, ante-natal care rooms and a comprehensive training programme for obstetricians and midwives. A total of five such Centres are planned, with the second – in the eastern city of Jalalabad – also now operational.

To address the issue of a chronic shortage of female health staff in Afghanistan, especially in rural areas, focus has been placed on improving training opportunities. The first 20 auxiliary midwives have now completed a pilot training programme supported by UNICEF, HealthNet International, John Hopkins University and the Government of the Netherlands. These women, based in rural communities in eastern Afghanistan, are considered adequately competent to provide basic – but potentially life-saving – interventions for women experiencing complicated pregnancies and childbirth. The positioning of these auxiliary midwives at community level will greatly enhance the level of obstetric care available to women in more isolated parts of the country. In addition, 18 maternal health teams from across Afghanistan, each comprising a doctor, two midwives and one anaesthetist, are currently enrolled in new competency-based training programmes supported by UNICEF and John Hopkins University. 

At national level, a new Department of Women and Reproductive Health has been established within the Ministry of Health , receiving specialist support from a senior advisor from Columbia University. The Ministry of Health has also developed a Basic Package of Health Services (BPHS), which ensures that emergency obstetric care is included in all future health programmes nationwide.

Speaking on the first anniversary of the report’s publication, UNICEF Representative Dr. Sharad Sapra congratulated partners in the Ministry of Health, the NGO and donor community for the achievements made to date. “Every new facility at the provincial level with skilled personnel, medicines and equipment is another vital tool in the battle to improve women’s right to life and health in Afghanistan,” Sapra said. “Every improvement to a maternity hospital, every health worker who graduates from a new training programme, provides another essential layer of care and support that increases women’s chances of survival,” Sapra continued.

However, Sapra cautioned that more support would be necessary if Afghanistan’s women were to enjoy truly safe motherhood. UNICEF still faces a shortfall of US$ 3.8 million in its maternal health budget for 2003.

“The international assistance community has made genuine pledges to safeguarding the health of Afghanistan’s mothers,” Sapra said. “Donors such as Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Australia have been especially generous in supporting maternal health programmes this year. But we need to do more, we must turn all pledges into long-term commitments if we are to turn the tide and provide women in this country with the quality health services that are their right,” Sapra added.


Media interested in seeing first hand the progress made in the area of maternal health in Afghanistan are invited to contact UNICEF, who can arrange visits to the recently refurbished Malalai Maternity Hospital in Kabul and to meet newly-trained obstetricians, midwives and auxiliary midwives.

Media should contact Dr. Suraya Dalil, UNICEF Safe Motherhood Project Officer on +93 702 91462 or Mohammad Rafi, UNICEF Assistant Communication Officer on +93 (0) 702 78493




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