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Afghan Women Today:
Realities and Opportunities

Reproductive Health and Reproductive Rights

Statement by Ms. Thoraya Ahmed Obaid
Executive Director United Nations Population Fund

International Women's Day 8 March 2002
United Nations New York

Mrs. Laura Bush, Ms. Angela King, Distinguished delegates, Representatives of the civil society, colleagues and friends,

Nowhere does International Women's Day mean more today than in Afghanistan.

After 23 years of conflict including five years of virtual house arrest, the women of Afghanistan are now taking the first steps to freedom and they deserve the world's full support.

While all of us have been shocked, saddened and angered by the denial of the rights of Afghan women, many Muslim women like me were deeply saddened and angered to see how the values of Islam are twisted to justify the oppression of women and the promotion of terror. It is the same Islam that motivated my parents to educate me and that empowered me to reach where I am today.

All of us have heard about the plight of Afghan women. Early age at marriage and frequent high-risk pregnancies combined with malnutrition and little or no prenatal care create a deadly situation for both mothers and their children. One in four children die before the age of five; one woman in 15 will die from complications of pregnancy and birth, the second highest rate of maternal mortality in the world. Nearly 99 per cent of deliveries take place at home and only 9 per cent are attended by trained medical personnel. Less than 5 per cent of women have access to obstetric care, and reproductive health care is unavailable in two thirds of the country's provinces. More than 80 per cent of Afghan women are malnourished. The average woman lives to the age of 44 and has eight children. Only 5 per cent of women can read and write and only 3 per cent of girls attended school.

These statistics are numbing; yet this is the reality in Afghanistan today. In our efforts to work with the people of Afghanistan to heal their wounds and to rebuild their country, we must remember that the women have not been able to exercise the most basic right that we, in more fortunate societies, take for granted - the right to life. Giving birth should never be a sentence to death.

The human rights of women include basic reproductive rights. Women must have access to health care services so they can survive pregnancy and birth and have healthy children. Women need information and voluntary family planning services so they can choose the number and spacing of their children. Women should also be able to make decisions about marriage and childbearing free of coercion, discrimination and violence.

As we talk today, we know that the peace building process is fragile and the situation remains precarious. Dr. Sima Samar, the Interim Minister of Women's Affairs, has said that it is hard to coax women out of their homes as long as there is no real security on the streets. Contrary to expectations and media reports, Afghan women have not flocked to throw away the purdah, not because they do not want to be free, but because they want to be safe. We must ensure that special measures are put in place to protect women and girls from all forms of violence.

The Minister of Health, Dr. Suhaila Siddiq, has asked the United Nations Population Fund to help coordinate efforts to improve the reproductive health of Afghan women. In response and as the first phase of our work with the Ministry of Public Health, cargo planes have landed in Kabul loaded with essential medical equipment and supplies to rehabilitate the three maternity hospitals in Kabul, all to save women's lives. The planes also carried equipment for schools for married women. We are supporting the various Afghan and international NGOs working on the ground to train midwives and other medical personnel and to provide education to married women.

As part of the integrated United Nations assistance mission in Afghanistan, the United Nations Population Fund is working closely with WHO to ensure that reproductive health is thoroughly integrated into Afghanistan's emerging health system.

But while we can provide support and resources, we cannot rebuild Afghanistan. The job has to be done by the Afghan people themselves, men and women, building on their local experience, knowledge and strength.

In just a few weeks, the long winter in Afghanistan will be over-symbolizing a time of new beginning and hope. Let this new beginning mark a turning point for women in Afghanistan and for women around the world. Let us remember today the many women in many countries who are excluded because of poverty or who die because of wars and conflicts.

With all the other rights, let us today reiterate our support to women's right to reproductive health. Around the world, the need for greater resources for reproductive health is urgent and it is growing. For every million dollars that UNFPA loses, there are 59,000 unwanted pregnancies, 24,000 induced abortions, 138 maternal deaths and 2,300 infant and child deaths.

This year on International Women's Day, let us make a solemn pledge that we will never again permit the violations and state-sponsored oppression that conspired against the women of Afghanistan or any other women in any country whatsoever. Let us choose to close this cruel chapter of history having fully absorbed and institutionalized the enormity and simplicity of its central lesson that denying women's freedom, rights and participation destroys a country and its people, and that supporting women's freedom, rights and full participation helps a country and its people to prosper and thrive.

Thank you.