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Conflict, Remoteness and Culture: How the Afghan Red Crescent Society is Supporting Women

By Aldis Brennan, Canadian Red Cross
Around the world childbirth is seen as a joyous occasion. It marks the beginning of a new life, full of possibility and hope for the future. In many countries we take this process for granted. There’s pain, certainly, but afterwards women can typically expect to recover with a happy, healthy child. However, in Afghanistan that is frequently not the case. In fact, childbirth can be a death sentence. The country has one of the highest rates of maternal death in the world due in large part to the toll 40 years of war and concurrent crises have taken on their healthcare system.
A member of the Afghan Red Crescent handing material to a woman with a young child.“The main cause of maternal death, as observed by healthcare organizations, is because women in rural areas don’t receive any basic maternal healthcare services,” said Naveed Siddiqi, Planning, Monitoring, Evaluation, and Reporting Officer for the Afghan Red Crescent Society. “Many of the women working in rural areas still do not receive any antenatal care when they are pregnant, and they don’t receive any post-natal care after child delivery.”
According to the World Health Organization, Afghanistan has one doctor for every 3,500 people, well below the global average. In addition, ongoing conflicts between warring parties make adequate medical care inaccessible to large numbers of people.
However, through their Mobile Health Teams which are in operation across the country, the Afghan Red Crescent Society is working to change that. The teams are operational in 33 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces providing a suite of services including: outpatient medical treatment, maternal, newborn, and child health treatment, immunization, as well as working to increase awareness on maternal and childcare.
An Afghan Red Crescent mobile health team standing by a large poster on a wall.“The Mobile Health Teams work in the hardest to reach and rural areas of the country where other organizations, including the government, do not have access due to conflict or because they are controlled by anti-government armed forces,” Siddiqi said.
But conflict and remoteness aren’t the only barriers that people face in accessing healthcare. For women, it’s often the absence of a female medical professional. That’s why it’s essential that each Mobile Health Team has a female midwife.
“Women and girls will not meet male doctors to seek healthcare because the culture does not allow it,” Siddiqi said. “The existence of a female midwife has encouraged women and girls to ask for healthcare.”
The results are clear. Last year the teams were able to reach over 510,000 people, more than half of whom were women and children.
They provided:
  • Outpatient services to more than 220,000 women
  • Maternal healthcare to over 74,000 women
  • Antenatal and post-natal care to almost 40,000 women
  • Immunization to nearly 20,000 women and girls
  • Child delivery to more than 1,300 women
Now during the COVID-19 pandemic, access to healthcare has become even more pressing in Afghanistan. Without access to public health information, screening and testing the disease can run rampant through a community. At the request of the government, the Mobile Health Teams have continued to operate and have expanded their services to meet the new needs.
“From my point of view, the Mobile Health Teams have done a great job because we’re providing service in regions where no other organization is able,” Siddiqi said. “For example, they covered areas in Kunar, one of the provinces that is on the border with Pakistan, to screen people for COVID-19 and raise awareness in areas that are not controlled by the government and are very difficult to reach.”
Through the Mobile Health Teams and other medical facilities run by the Afghan Red Crescent Society, hundreds of thousands of people have been screened for COVID-19 and even more are now aware of the dangers it poses. While a serious threat remains, the work of the Mobile Health Teams has helped to contain the disease and alleviate the burden on an already struggling health system.
While the service is vital, it’s not easy. Team members are constantly on the move in remote areas and have to navigate an increasingly complex environment.
It is a delicate balance and one that is a testament to the Afghan Red Crescent Society’s commitment to the fundamental principles of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. All people, whether male or female, no matter where they live or their political affiliations, deserve dignified access to healthcare.
The Afghan Red Crescent Mobile Health Teams are supported by the Canadian Red Cross and continue to deliver lifesaving medical assistance, particularly to women and girls, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Support our Global COVID-19 Appeal  here.

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