By Narges Ghafary
World Vision Afghanistan

Afghanistan is one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman; more women die in pregnancy and childbirth than almost anywhere else in the world. One in 50 women will die during pregnancy or childbirth—one every two hours. Women have more than five children on average, yet one out of 10 children die before their fifth birthday.

The only good news is that these statistics have substantially improved in the last few years with World Vision’s commitment through its health programmes.

After three decades of warfare, Afghan women are taking reconstruction, coupled with creating social change, into their own hands.

Shafiqa is a 45 year old widow who lost her husband in the war. She is now the single mother of five sons.

“Now I am working in health mobile team in remote areas where there is no clinic and health staff. I go to remote areas with four of my male colleagues; I am the only woman in their team. We stay one week in each remote area and nights we have to stay in Arbab’s home [village elder], at Thursday we will [go] back to the city to spend the weekend with our families. Some of my female colleagues advise me to leave my job because it is so dangerous but I never do that because I think all success in my life is due to pray[ers] of these people [people in remote area]. It is difficult to be far from family for one week but when people are happy to see us, I forget all difficulties,” she says.

She is a successful example of the Afghan woman who has endured difficult days and has fruitful children who are as proud of her as she is of them.

“We lived in Kabul, I had 21 years old and my husband was clerk, we had a good and nice life until my husband was killed in the war and left me alone with five children.” She takes a deep breath and continues, “I lived with my husband’s family, when I lost my husband they [tried to force] me to marry with my brother-in-law.”

In some parts of Afghanistan, marriage with surviving brothers is common. As a young widow with five children she had two choices: to marry her brother-in-law or to lose everything and live an uncertain future with her children.

“I loved my husband, my conscience did not allow something like this so when I didn’t accept marriage with their son they threw me out of the house with five children, my last child [was] only one year old,” Shafiqa said.

Many Afghan widows struggle for survival. After their husbands’ deaths, the women are faced with rape, poverty and social condemnation. Especially if they live without family support, they are vulnerable and some of them even consider ending their lives as an alternative to the risks they are certain to face.

“[His family] even [kept] my husband’s [inheritance]. I didn’t have any family; they were missing in the war, so I decided to leave Kabul before my husband family got back my children too. I lived in immigration camp with my children in Herat. I passed awful days; my older son had only eight years. We didn’t have equipment for living; even we hadn’t glass to drink tea or hadn’t enough dress to put on in the winter so I had to work all day. My husband liked our children to be educated so their education was another responsibility for me. I had to work three shifts to fight with poverty, I worked in the office as a typesetter in the morning, as a registration person in one private clinic at evening and I had to sew at night. Everything was going good until Afghanistan was occupied by Taliban.”

During the rule of the Taliban women were treated worse than at any other time. They were forbidden to work, leave the house without a male escort, or seek medical help from a male doctor, and they were forced to cover themselves from head to toe, even covering their eyes.

Women who were doctors and teachers were forced to leave their work and sit at home, and girls were forbidden to go to school as a result of the prevalent ultraconservative policies of that period.

“That time I couldn’t work outside so I had to rotate the wheel of life with sewing and clothes washing in people homes. After leaving of Taliban I continued my work at the clinic in registration; as my children grew up gradually their needs became more and more and in the other hand the rent of house was increased and my salary wasn’t enough so I had to find a way.

By the clinic head I was informed [of] World Vision’s midwifery programme.”

World Vision has been conducting midwifery education programmes in Herat since 2011 to reduce maternal and newborn mortality.

“[In] childhood I liked to be a nurse or doctor so it was a great opportunity for me, after graduation I could help woman and children as well as I could have an income for my family so my children’s future will be guaranteed. First it was so hard, I studied, worked and took care of my children, but I [dreamed of a] lighter future. My children had gone to school in the morning and worked in the tailor shop and workshop at the evening to help me [in] supporting of family.

After graduation as there was lack of midwife, immediately I found work in clinic as a midwife. Day by day my children grew up and were about to finish high school. I was near to my husband’s dream. Now could support my family as well as save money for their future. I collected my money and made family for my two older sons [who] now are working in remote areas as translators.”

Shafiqa is on the right

She laughs and says, “Now I have a grandson. My last child will graduate from high school next year. I always saw these days [as a] dream; actually I have this success from prayers of people that I treated when there wasn’t a trained health staff to help them. Pity that my husband isn’t here to see these days and be proud of his children and my education,” Shafiqa said.