What It Means To Be A Mother In Afghanistan

by Silke Buhr, World Food Programme Public Information Officer in Kabul, Afghanistan

Afghanistan is no longer the worst place in the world to be a mother, according to a new report by Save the Children. I am at once heartened and shocked by this news. If that respected NGO can show that progress has been made in this country, it must be true, and that is a good thing. But then this means that there is a place where women risk even more to have a child than in Afghanistan. My heart goes out to the women of Niger, the new holders of this soul-wrenching title.

Even before the report came out, wed been talking a great deal about motherhood in my little office in Kabul. My Afghan colleagues cant tell me enough how important mothers are in their culture, how mothers are honoured, revered and loved. They quote religious references and snippets from everyday life; they speak fondly of protective prayers spoken and understandingly of punishment meted out. They are acutely aware of the sacrifices and hardships their mothers have endured for them.

My mother is very, very old, one colleague tells me. Turns out shes 65 the same age as my own mother, who if I described her in those words would probably chase me around the room and make me buy her dinner by way of apology. But when the life expectancy for a woman is, on average, somewhere in the mid to late forties, then even my mother would agree that 65 is ancient.

Since Ive been in Afghanistan, just nine short months, two of my colleagues have lost their unborn babies. The statistics of maternal mortality in Afghanistan suddenly hit home. Its no longer a number, but the friendly, welcoming people I share an office with every day. They are among the best-earning, best-educated young Afghans in the country, and unlike the majority they have access to the best medical facilities that the nations capital (or neighbouring Pakistan) has to offer. Even for them pregnancy can be life-threatening. The plight of rural women is even more dramatic. Looking at the figures, it seems that there can hardly be a woman in Afghanistan who has not lost a baby.

The other morning I visited a training centre on the outskirts of Kabul where we met a group of women learning how to read and write and incongruously sew footballs. Its a marketable skill that might help them earn a bit of money on the side in future. One of the women had been married off when she was just ten years old. Her husband didnt want their own daughter to go to school, but she stood up to him and eventually got her own way. Theres not even pride in her voice as she tells the story of this monumental victory, just weariness. I can see how in such a situation, WFPs take-home rations for schoolgirls would make a big difference. A monthly can of fortified cooking oil used to seem to me like a small incentive to families to send their girls to school, but if thats what it takes to sway a reluctant father, then so be it.

One of the indicators measured by Save the Children is the number of girls in formal education, which has gone from zero in 2001 to 2.5 million today. A useful reminder that were starting from a baseline so low it can hardly be imagined. Progress is being made in Afghanistan, but we need to ensure that we dont lose the momentum, especially now as donor countries are facing tough economic choices. Afghan women must not be once again left to fend for themselves.

Related Stories:

The State of The World’s Mothers

Girlpower! in Afghanistan (VIDEO)

A Million Moms to Prevent Maternal Mortality

Photo credit: Silke Buhr / WFP


Marianne Good
Past Member 4 years ago

I do hope men some day will realize that we are human beings each one of us regardless of religion.

Huber F.
Huber F5 years ago

Out of this world. Not a rosy picture?

Sandra K.
Sandra T5 years ago

After reading this article again a few times, the situation for women in Afghanistan reminds me very much of the conditions women are living under in my husband's country. Also an Islamic country. His country claims to be 'democratic', yet still jails rape victims & Atheists, still allows fanatical Muslims to run amuck abusing other citizens directly under the watchful eyes of the national police, and still allows the marriage and sale of female children solely for the purpose of 'legal' sex according to shariah law. Even their minister of tourism has often promoted the country as a place of 'legal' prostitution of female citizens of his own country in order for Muslim Arab men to be able to come & 'temporarily marry' girls for sex holidays. Sadly, the government is run by Islamists who have no concept of what 'democracy' means and who only attempt to promote their country as such in order to attract more foreign investors. Anything for a buck. Including selling their own women & female children in temporary marriages.

Sandra K.
Sandra T5 years ago

Social change in Islamic countries is held back by Islam itself. As long as the government in power is run by Islamists, women will continue to die at early ages, little girls will continue to die in childbirth, women & girls of all ages will continue to be publicly executed for bogus 'crimes against morality'. Much like Christianity holds back societal progress - especially when it comes to women, girls, LGBT, and non-white members of society - in Western countries, Islam holds back societal progress in Muslim countries. The situation just happens to be more extreme in Islamic nations. This should be a very clear warning to us all as to the very real dangers which religions pose to all of us.

devon leonard
Devon Leonar5 years ago

It's so very very sad that Afghanistan has been beaten down by war for so long...... So many lives disrupted, so many lives lost, families displaced... I'm sure the courage and long suffering Afghani women have been a source of strength for their nation.... We are all in this together...

Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener5 years ago

I'm with David N., social change in the means of more power to these women!

Ra Sc
Ra Sc5 years ago

I hope much more progress can happen - in Afghanistan, Niger, and all around the world.

Vicky Pitchford
Vicky P5 years ago

hopefully it slowly improves for them..

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson5 years ago

im glad progress is being made, but I want it made everywhere. I am broke, how can I help? I really want to help

Elizabeth Koenig
Elizabeth Koenig5 years ago

Afghanistan is no longer the worst place in the world to be a mother, according to a new report by Save the Children....

One of the indicators measured by Save the Children is the number of girls in formal education, which has gone from zero in 2001 to 2.5 million today.

And good post from Monica R.

There has been a very small amount of progress in Afghanistan--but this will all disappear the minute we leave, We are already-insanely--"negotiating" with the Taliban. They'll be back in power soon after we pull out.

I am not suggesting we stay there forever--this is neither possible nor desirable.

But the few hard-won changes for the better in Afghanistan will not last.

God knows, I wish it were otherwise.