A female health worker’s service despite countless challenges
Amidst increasing restrictions on women's rights in Afghanistan, UNICEF supports salaries for health workers like Sadia, so she can continue caring for children and women in her community.
NANGARHAR, AFGHANISTAN - With her two-year-old son, Musavi, tucked in her lap, Sadia Khan rushes through a health centre hallway. Upon reaching the dressing room, she carefully places her son on a stool before tending to an injured patient's dressing. Despite a chaotic environment, her son remains calm as he watches his mother provide medical care to the patient.
Sadia Khan is a nurse at a health centre in Nangarhar Province in the eastern region of Afghanistan.
A mother of several young children, Sadia has worked at the health centre for nearly 10 years. Until two years ago, her life was very different. She came from a prosperous middle-class family, with her husband working for a foreign embassy.
After the Taliban seized power in August 2021 and most foreign embassies left Afghanistan, her husband lost his job and remained unemployed for over a year. Frustrated with the economic situation in Afghanistan and limited employment opportunities, he left the country last year to pursue better economic prospects, leaving Sadia alone to raise their children and to care for her in-laws.
With little help at home to care for her youngest child, Sadia brings Musavir with her to the health centre. On occasions, she entrusts him to the care of the chairwoman at the health centre, but more frequently, she carries him around while she treats the patients.
“I worry for his health and safety. He is at risk of contracting an infection, but I don’t have an option. I need this job for the survival of my entire family. There is no kindergarten facility at the health centre.”
Sadia's job is arduous. She wakes at dawn to prepare food for her family before leaving for work at 7:30 am. Her workplace is an hour-ride from her home, and she’s often scared about her safety during her commute.
“Before, I used to read verses from Quran for safety from suicide attacks while commuting to work. Now I pray that the Taliban don’t stop me from going to work. We (health workers) are exempt from the ban, but I am always apprehensive about the possibility of being stopped by the Taliban and sent home,” says Sadia.
In addition to being physically demanding, Sadia's job also takes a toll on her emotionally. Many of the patients she treats are in poor health and come with little means. She often feels helpless when she is unable to provide the necessary care beyond her capacity.
“A few weeks ago, a woman visited the health centre with a diabetic foot infection. We referred her to a provincial hospital, but she was unable to afford the transportation charges to go to the city. The woman returned the next day, hoping that I would be able to treat her. Unfortunately, there was little that could be done for her at our health centre. It breaks my heart when I see patients who can’t get the medical care they need due to financial constraints,” sighs Sadia.
Despite the challenges, Sadia takes pride in her work — the services she provides to vulnerable populations. As a frontline female health worker, she plays a critical role in delivering healthcare services in Afghanistan, especially to those who may not have access to care otherwise, such as children, women, the elderly, and those with disabilities.
“I receive love and recognition from my patients, colleagues, family and society. That love overshadows my daily struggles at work,” smiles Sadia.
Across Afghanistan, in partnership with the World Bank, UNICEF plays a critical role in supporting the operations of 2,311 health centres by covering the salaries of around 26,000 health workers, including that of Sadia (name changed). Amidst increasing restrictions on women's rights in Afghanistan, including, most recently, a directive for Afghan women working in the UN, UNICEF remains committed to delivering health services to the most vulnerable Afghans nationwide.