U.S. Soldiers Seek Midwife in Afghanistan

By Christine Cupaiuolo — May 22, 2009

Philip Smucker of McClatchy Newspapers has written a must-read story about a search for a midwife in an Afghan war zone. American soldiers hope the woman will help open a health clinic in Paktika, described as one of the poorest and most dangerous of Afghanistan’s eastern provinces.

Yes, the effort is part propaganda. But it sure beats the CIA handing out Viagra to Afghan tribal leaders.

Afghanistan has devastatingly high infant and maternal mortality rates, and war has made access to health care more difficult. Every 26 minutes, an Afghan woman dies giving birth; the rate is second only to Sierra Leone. Midwives are critical to any public heath effort, yet even the training poses a real risk.

“Frequently the distance between home and a health care center is a two- to 10-hour walk,” Kathrin Lauer, a medical administration expert with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan, said. “Midwives with good training are critical if you want to reduce the maternal and neonatal mortality rates. This is one way to help win the war.”

A Chicago Tribune story last year on an Afghan midwife training program noted that militants shot and killed a midwife, allegedly for  handing out condoms and birth control. One midwife said women feared even taking part in the training program, originally created by a Dutch relief agency, because the school was near an American base. The women didn’t want to be associated with Americans, or give the impression that they were.


In the McClatchy story, soldiers received the name of a midwife from a local pharmacist. One of the soliders, Maj. Yince Loh, is a brain surgeon from Los Angeles.

“Right now, we can’t help the Afghan government come in here and build a big Afghan clinic,” Loh said. “But we have some options and we are still looking for midwives to help. Our goals are incremental: to improve infant mortality step by step. That will certainly help improve perceptions of the government.”

But when they found the woman, named Shamshad, 45, she was terrified. The Taliban had previously abducted her for two weeks — punishment for providing a bandage to a wounded Afghan government soldier. Smucker writes:

“Please help me, but don’t bring me anything yourself; send it at night through someone else,” Shamshad pleaded as the Americans greeted her.

Sgt. Eric Pollock, a National Guardsman from San Diego, asked Shamshad whether she could work at an Afghan medical clinic, but she said she couldn’t.

“If I work in an official clinic, they (the Taliban) will behead me,” she said, demurring from having her photo taken out of fear that the Taliban might see it.

“I’ve been interested in medicine for a long time,” said Shamshad, who wasn’t covering her hair as Afghan and many other Muslim women traditionally do. “My husband would not let me work in a government clinic, so I opened my own clinic here. But when I was arrested in Pakistan by the Taliban and fell ill, thieves ransacked the clinic and took everything, including my stethoscope, hot water heater and blankets.”

Loh said he’d think about how he might help Shamshad as he emptied his medical supplies onto the counter for her and prepared to return to base.

Thoughts on how the U.S. can do good as our presence complicates the situation even more?

Plus: Read our previous coverage of maternal health conditions in Afghanistan and U.S. involvement, including stories about Afghanistan’s largest women’s hospital, Rabia Balkhi, home to the Laura Bush Maternity Ward.

And over at Feministing, Courtney ponders military escalation in Afghanistan and what it means to Afghan women.

2 responses to “U.S. Soldiers Seek Midwife in Afghanistan”

  1. This good deed will most likely compromise the life of Samshad and the Afghan people who so badly need her assistance. Sadly, I wonder if her execution will even warrant a write up.

  2. Wow. Thanks for pointing this story out.

    We have way too long a history in Afghanistan ever to be an effective broker of peace and change — and that’s not even considering how much mistrust we have sown the last eight years.

    We certainly need to stop the Taliban from ever taking power again (a just war if I ever saw one) — but the “we” needs to be the international community — and it needs to be about more than counter-terrorism to have legitimacy. Or at least the terrorism against women needs to be part of the counter-terrorism equation.

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