Motherhood in Afghanistan is more dangerous than almost anywhere else; most births are at home, and one woman in eight dies during pregnancy or childbirth. Afghan religious leaders are now speaking out against this deadly neglect of women's health, using Islamic teachings. Qurban-Bibi knew she had to give birth in a hospital, since her previous delivery was by cesarean section. But to save money, her relatives took her to a local market instead.
I pleaded with the men, "I've got to go to the hospital." But they said, "Don't worry, God is kind. Everything will be okay."
It wasn't okay. Qurban-Bibi lost her baby and nearly bled to death. She also developed obstetric fistula, leaving her unable to control her bladder. Maulawi Amanudin of Afghanistan's Ministry of Religious Affairs says denying health care to women like Qurban-Bibi is un-Islamic, whether for reasons of poverty or propriety.
Access to health services is an equal right.
A new initiative enlists Afghan mullahs to teach men and boys to protect the health and rights of their wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters. It aims to reverse the legacy of decades of conflict and poverty. In Friday prayers and community meetings, the religious leaders preach about the harm done by denial of care, domestic violence, child marriage, and spacing births too close together. Mawlawi Saddique Muslem, a senior Supreme Court official, helped develop the program.
MAWLAWI SADDIQUE MUSLEM
Having a healthy mother and a healthy family is what it means to have a healthy marriage in Islam.
Maulawi Abdulwali leads the training in Badakhshan, which has the highest maternal mortality in Afghanistan.
Because of the war and ongoing tribal disputes, most people live in ignorance. But when issues are raised in light of religious values, it has an impact.
Reducing violence against women is a key aim. Marzia's story is not uncommon: her mother-in-law hit her while she was cooking, causing hot soup to burn her arm. To curb violence in the home, the mullahs suggest ways of managing anger and resolving family conflicts. Religious teachings are also used to challenge the mistaken belief that Islam does not allow birth spacing. The average Afghan woman bears seven children, and only one couple in 20 uses contraception.
MAWLAWI SADDIQUE MUSLEM
The Koran clearly states there should be 30 months between births to protect the health of children and mothers. When religious leaders and communities understand that this is what the Prophet Muhammad says, misconceptions within families can be resolved.
Organizers hope that persuading men to oppose domestic violence and early marriage, practice birth spacing, and ensure women's access to health care, will mean a higher quality of life for all Afghans.
This report was produced by William A. Ryan and Marc Westhof for the United Nations.