Our Bodies, Our Blog

U.S. Soldiers Seek Midwife in Afghanistan

By Christine Cupaiuolo |

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.

Double Dose: Bush White House – “Where All Good Public Health Protections Go to Die”; Afghanistan’s High Maternal Death Rate; The Disney Hypocrisy; Divorce Tied to Professor’s Job Loss; Amy Richards on “Opting In”; and More

By Christine Cupaiuolo |

Federal Agencies Can Now Offer Secret Input on EPA Chemical Reviews: The Washington Post reports on changes the Bush administration has made to Environmental Protection Agency reviews of chemicals — changes that officials with the Government Accountability Office say will delay scientific assessments of health risks and open the process to politicization.

Richard Wiles, executive director of the Environmental Working Group, called the EPA process a “bureaucratic quagmire,” adding, “With these rules in place, it’s now official: The Bush White House is … More

Midwifery on the Rise in Afghanistan to Combat Maternal Deaths

By Rachel Walden |

Guest blogger Rachel Walden of Women’s Health News is posting here this week, while Christine is on vacation.

In Afghanistan, there is a movement afoot to dramatically increase the number of trained midwives available to serve women throughout their pregnancies. This is with good reason – a 2000 World Health Organization report estimated the nation’s maternal mortality as second worst in the world, at 1,900 deaths per 100,000 live births (compared with 20 in developed countries).

Under the Taliban, new midwives … More

“Motherland Afghanistan” Captures State of Women’s Health, U.S. Failures in Afghanistan

By Christine Cupaiuolo |

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, … More

The Politics of Fathering

By Christine Cupaiuolo |

Nancy Chodorow’s “The Reproduction of Mothering” was an instant feminist classic when it was published in 1978. One of the most visionary conclusions was her call for men to take an equal role in the caretaking of children. If they don’t, she argued, women would grow up with a distorted perspective on their own relationships with men.

More than 30 years later, Chodorow’s call appears as challenging as ever — at least in the United States, where parental leave is still … More

Picturing a World Where Women Are Empowered and Valued

By Christine Cupaiuolo |

Women in the developing world are the focus of the Aug. 23 edition of The New York Times Magazine.

The main feature is an essay adapted from a new book by Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff and former Times correspondent Sheryl Wudunn. Titled “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” the book and its companion website look at three major abuses against women: sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence including honor killings and mass rape; and … More

Viagra for Afghan Patriarchs, to Hell With Women

By Christine Cupaiuolo |

You may have missed this front-page Washington Post story on Friday about our wonderful CIA handing out Viagra to aging Afghan tribal leaders:

“Take one of these. You’ll love it,” the officer said. Compliments of Uncle Sam.

The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes — followed by a request for more pills. […]

In their efforts to win over … More

Midwives Risk Death to Help Bring Birth

By Christine Cupaiuolo |

The Chicago Tribune reports on the high maternal death rate for women in Afghanistan and training programs for midwives. To put it in perspective: “Almost every 26 minutes here, a woman dies giving birth. Only Sierra Leone’s rate is worse. In her lifetime, an Afghan woman has a 1 in 8 chance of dying in labor.”

As Rachel previously wrote, there has been a push in recent years by Afghan health officials and Western aid groups to train midwives, whose skills are desperately needed in … More

Challenges Facing Female Veterans

By Christine Cupaiuolo |

On this Veterans Day, we take a look at the services available to female veterans, who face high rates of sexual assault, and the increased dangers of domestic violence among military personnel:

– “Shedding light on the challenges facing women in the military, a new study shows that more than one in seven female Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking VA medical care reported experiencing sexual trauma during their service,” HealthDay News reported in October.

The study was conducted by the VA Palo Alto Health Care … More

Double Dose: Neither Superwomen Nor Supermoms; Cigarette Taxes Inrease in NY; Screening for Domestic Abuse; The EPA, Percholate and Your Drinking Water …

By Christine Cupaiuolo |

New York Governor Faces Suit Over Same-Sex Marriage Order: “An Arizona-based conservative Christian group said on Friday that it planned to sue Gov. David A. Paterson to block his directive to state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages performed outside New York,” reports The New York Times.

The group suing is the Alliance Defense Fund, which was founded by the Rev. James C. Dobson and others, all of whom are for limiting marriage to heterosexuals. The story also discusses how Senate Republican leaders plan on … More