Afghanistan is no longer the worst place in the world to be a mother, according to a new report by Save the Children. I am at once heartened and shocked by this news. If that respected NGO can show that progress has been made in this country, it must be true, and that is a good thing. But then this means that there is a place where women risk even more to have a child than in Afghanistan. My heart goes out to the women of Niger, the new holders of this soul-wrenching title.
Even before the report came out, we’d been talking a great deal about motherhood in my little office in Kabul. My Afghan colleagues can’t tell me enough how important mothers are in their culture, how mothers are honoured, revered and loved. They quote religious references and snippets from everyday life; they speak fondly of protective prayers spoken and understandingly of punishment meted out. They are acutely aware of the sacrifices and hardships their mothers have endured for them.
“My mother is very, very old,” one colleague tells me. Turns out she’s 65 – the same age as my own mother, who if I described her in those words would probably chase me around the room and make me buy her dinner by way of apology. But when the life expectancy for a woman is, on average, somewhere in the mid to late forties, then even my mother would agree that 65 is ancient.
Since I’ve been in Afghanistan, just nine short months, two of my colleagues have lost their unborn babies. The statistics of maternal mortality in Afghanistan suddenly hit home. It’s no longer a number, but the friendly, welcoming people I share an office with every day. They are among the best-earning, best-educated young Afghans in the country, and unlike the majority they have access to the best medical facilities that the nation’s capital (or neighbouring Pakistan) has to offer. Even for them pregnancy can be life-threatening. The plight of rural women is even more dramatic. Looking at the figures, it seems that there can hardly be a woman in Afghanistan who has not lost a baby.
The other morning I visited a training centre on the outskirts of Kabul where we met a group of wosmen learning how to read and write and – incongruously – sew footballs. It’s a marketable skill that might help them earn a bit of money on the side in future. One of the women had been married off when she was just ten years old. Her husband didn’t want their own daughter to go to school, but she stood up to him and eventually got her own way. There’s not even pride in her voice as she tells the story of this monumental victory, just weariness. I can see how in such a situation, WFP’s take-home rations for schoolgirls would make a big difference. A monthly can of fortified cooking oil seemed to me like a small incentive for families to send their girls to school, but if that’s what it takes to sway a reluctant father, then so be it.
One of the indicators measured by Save the Children is the number of girls in formal education, which has gone from zero in 2001 to 2.5 million today. A useful reminder that we’re starting from a baseline so low it can hardly be imagined. Progress has been made in Afghanistan, but we need to ensure that we don’t lose the momentum, especially now as donor countries are facing tough economic choices. Afghan women must not be once again left to fend for themselves.