"Motherland Afghanistan" Captures State of Women's Health, U.S. Failures in Afghanistan

By Christine Cupaiuolo — April 5, 2007

Nearly one in seven Afghan women die in childbirth.

That’s the first fact noticed at the website of “Motherland Afghanistan,” a PBS Independent Lens film by Sedika Mojadidi.

Sedika’s father, Dr. Qudrat Mojadidi, is an obstetrician specializing in high-risk pregnancies who left Afghanistan for the United States in 1973. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. government recruits him to help overhaul Afghanistan’s largest women’s hospital, Rabia Balkhi, which has a newly renamed maternity ward under U.S. sponsorship — the Laura Bush Maternity Ward, no joke — and the conditions are deplorable.

“Although the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had touted the hospital as a state-of-the-art facility on its Web site and press releases, it was a disaster,” Sedika Mojadidi tells Women’s eNews. “Infection control was nonexistent; patients delivered on the same plastic sheets one after another. Patients had to buy medications for their surgeries from a pharmacy near the hospital because promised supplies never arrived.”

In “Motherland Afghanistan,” Mojadidi covers the devastating impact the country’s lack of adequate healthcare has on women through the story of her father’s work. Afghanistan has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world, behind only Sierra Leone. Here are some additional facts:

* 25 percent of children die before reaching their fifth birthday.
* 50 women die each day from pregnancy-related complications.
* Most citizens lack access to safe water or sanitation.
* 2 million children of primary school age do not attend classes.

Mojadidi’s father realizes the impossible task he has been charged with and resigns after several months. Two years later, he is persuaded to return by Shuhada, an Afghan-led nongovernmental organization. He packs up once again, but this time he heads to Shuhada Hospital, a rural facility that emphasizes prevention and education. Sedika also returns, and films for two more months.

Sharon Johnson of Women’s eNews writes about the film’s importance and its potential as an agent of change:

Elizabeth H. Williams, acting director of the Asia Society’s Asian Social Issues Program, said the film, coupled with data and other public health efforts, might spur changes in public policy and generate funding by highlighting a rare issue in today’s media coverage of war and reconstruction.

“To do a feature-length film on maternal mortality is really important, because there are not a lot of people out there doing that,” she said. “It’s one of the key issues.”

Unlike other reporters who have focused on the continuing U.S. military presence and the hunt for terrorists in Afghanistan, Mojadidi concentrated on how the systematic neglect of basic services such as prenatal care is undermining U.S. efforts to win hearts and minds.

“I hope the film will give American audiences a more realistic view of Afghan women,” said Mojadidi in an interview before a sold-out February screening at the Asia Society in New York. “For the past 25 years, Afghan women have either been ignored in news reports of the Russian occupation and the subsequent civil war, or portrayed in TV films as victims. However, the women in my documentaries don’t consider themselves victims; they do everything possible to keep themselves and their children alive.”

Plus: Visit the film’s website for a Q&A interview with Sedika Mojadidi. The Learn More section includes resources on Afghan reproductive health (for which the “Our Bodies Ourselves” chapter on the politics of women’s health is listed as a source) as well as Afghan politics and history.

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