My mother gave birth to 15 children. As the oldest, I watched my mother through her pregnancies, helped deliver the children when I was old enough and helped care for them as infants. Unfortunately, only 5 of her children survived past 1 or 2 years old. My brothers and sisters would seem healthy upon delivery, then would fall ill and pass away. In addition to watching my brothers and sisters die, I was worried that my mother would end up like the other women I saw carried to the graveyard after perishing during childbirth due to a lack of health facilities. I am lucky that my mother survived, and my family’s story, while very sad, is all too common in Afghanistan.
When I was a child, there were no clinics to visit, no female doctors to treat women, and hospitals were thought of as places where you went to die. Then, war began, and Afghans fled the country for refugee camps in Pakistan and other neighboring countries. It is in these camps where I began my work. I realized that, in their despair and ignorance, Afghans had ceased to care for their own basic needs and were not teaching their children how to care for themselves. The Afghan refugees were in desperate need of basic healthcare, and they also needed to be educated. They needed to be taught how to care for themselves and their families and how to keep their families healthy.
So, when I founded the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), we began by offering health and education to Afghan women and children. In our clinics and schools, we taught them basic hygiene and nutrition. As women applied what they were learning, they saw that they and their children were healthier. We then began offering reproductive health workshops for women so that they could understand how a child grows inside a mother, what is needed for mother and child during and after pregnancy, safe birth practices, breast feeding—essentially the basics that a mother needs to know when having a child. The aim is to give the women the knowledge they need to make good decisions for their child and themselves. Time and time again, I have seen that once they are educated, women will make healthy choices for themselves and their children. Since 1996, over 2 million Afghan women and children have received health education at our clinics; education which is helping to create healthier children, families and communities.
In 2010, because the maternal child and infant mortality rate is so high in Afghanistan, we began our Expectant Mother’s Program for rural women who normally deliver at home. These are workshops held for pregnant women and their birth helper. During the workshop, we teach them how to care for themselves while pregnant; we teach them about breastfeeding and all of the benefits that come from it; we teach them how to care for an infant; and, most importantly, we share with them why it is important to come to a clinic or hospital to deliver their babies. Since beginning the program in 2010, over 650 women have participated in these workshops. 97% of participants have chosen to have their babies in a clinic or hospital rather than at home; no women have died; and there has been only one stillborn. The women changed their behavior once they learned what was best for their families.
Our staff hears thousands of stories from the women whose lives are changed through health education. One is from a woman who had three young children, ages 1, 2, and 3 years old when she first came to an AIL clinic. She says, “My children were so weak. I felt hopeless and fed up with life. One day my husband told me that there was a clinic and I should take the children to see the kind and professional doctors. The clinic was about 2 hours away. I went and visited the doctors and midwife, and told them about my problems. After seeing us, they told me that my children were malnourished because they were born so close together. My body could not keep up with trying to feed three children. My children received treatment for the malnourishment, and after three months they are much healthier. Two of them began walking after being treated. I am so happy. Three years later, I now have a newborn child; she is normal and well nourished because of what I learned at the clinic. I am so thankful to the doctors. Now, many people from our area visit this clinic.”
This woman’s story and the thousands of others from mothers like her proves to me that education is the way to a healthier country. Simply treating people will not work. Afghans will care for themselves and their families when they know how. It is through education that we will reduce our infant and maternal rate from the highest to the lowest.
By Dr. Sakena Yacoobi