Supporting girls in Afghanistan
Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous countries for a girl to be born. Finland has funded Marie Stopes International’s work for the future of girls for a long time.
A pregnant girl arriving at a health clinic. There is no other place for her to go. If her father or brothers learn that she is pregnant, they will kill her. The risk is so big that the girl’s mother may try to terminate the pregnancy by poking her daughter’s stomach with a bicycle wheel spoke.
This is an example of situations dealt with by Marie Stopes International. Everyday life is austere for Afghan women and girls. The organisation has focused on matters relating to the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls since 2002. Finland supports its work from its development cooperation funds.
Imams supporting female workers
Afghanistan has the highest rates of maternal and child mortality in the world. Because of conflicts and the collapse of the basic services, especially women who live in remote areas do not have access to health services. Even if services were available, it may be difficult for a woman to get her husband’s permission for a visit to a health clinic.
“This is why we hire only women to work at the health clinics. Men are denied entry to the clinics to ensure that women gain access to these services,” says Farhad Javid, Country Director of Marie Stopes International in Afghanistan, who visited Finland.
The organisation has trained hundreds of women to work in the health sector and as volunteers. At first, it was hard to find women to take employment.
“In many places, working for our organisation was the first time that women were allowed to work outside the home. That was one thing that promoted women’s position.”
In Afghanistan, religion plays a strong role. Conservative attitudes determine that men hold a controlling role both in the family and in society. If the husband does not let his wife to go to the clinic, she cannot do so.
“We work a lot with men, too. When we open a health clinic, we do it in cooperation with the religious leaders and village chiefs of the area. When they support the work, men let their wives use the clinic services.”
From 2002 until today, 3.8 million patients have visited the organisations’ clinics, nearly all of them women.
The organisation also employs female workers who travel from house to house, informing women about health questions and offering basic services.
“Getting money for the trip to a clinic alone may be impossible for a woman. We therefore bring services and information directly at their homes.”
For the most remote regions, the organisation has six mini-buses equipped with mobile clinics that can be transferred to even the most hard-to-reach areas.
In religious communities, family planning and contraception can meet severe resistance. When it was established in Afghanistan, Marie Stopes International published a book “Family Planning and Islam”. The book was helpful when the organisation approached religious leaders and discussed family planning with them.
“Words matter. Family planning is not allowed but birth spacing is. Therefore we emphasise why it is important for a woman’s health that she can recover in between births. We tell the men how the whole family benefits from the mother’s good health.”
Birth control is also brought up when Islam is discussed. Condoms have been delivered to men in mosques, and women have been able to take pregnancy tests in mosque toilets. The work has been successful. Family planning services have been used by 1,4 million Afghan women.
Thousands of saved women
Finland has supported Marie Stopes International in Afghanistan since 2003.
In 2018–2020 Finland’s funding to the organisation will be approximately EUR 4 million.
In addition to helping the 3,8 million women who have visited the health clinics, the organisation exercises influence on Afghanistan’s political life.
The organisation has an influence on the Afghan society and politics, too. The organisation urges all healthcare service providers to prohibit virginity tests that girls need to undergo before marriage. Additionally, sexual and reproductive rights have been incorporated into the curriculum and the Government's political agenda.
The author is Editor-in-Chief of Kehitys-Utveckling, a magazine published by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.