‘I was born with animals, I was brought up like an animal, I was a mother like an animal.’
Zahra, November 2013. Births: 19, surviving children: 9
Welcome to Charkent; a district in Balkh province, northern Afghanistan where women are just a commodity, pregnancy is a dirty word and maternal mortality is one of the highest in the world.
In Afghanistan 26,000 women die from complications during pregnancy and childbirth every year; that is one in 11 women, one woman dying every 27 minutes. Maternal deaths are recorded as twice as high as the number of civilians annually killed in conflict. In rural areas, where women often have no mode of transport and home births are the most common the risk of death rises to one in three.
In collaboration with the UK-based international maternal health charity HealthProm, this photographic exhibition is being held to raise awareness of the huge issue of maternal mortality in Afghanistan and to raise funds for the charity. HealthProm works in Charkent, one of the most remote districts in northern Afghanistan, providing life-saving health services and education to women and villages who feel that they have been forgotten by the world.
The photographer Ellie Kealey was struck by the stories of the women she met in Charkent whilst on assignment for Arete Stories, Health Prom and SPANA. Despite having worked in Afghanistan since 2009 Ellie was surprised to be so shocked by what she describes as the ‘brutal reality of the living conditions’. Every woman, young or old had a harrowing story to tell.
This exhibition will tell their stories, and how Health Prom is trying to make a change for the better.
‘We don’t have anything to eat, we just grow wheat and make bread and have it with tea only’. Zolfiua
The event comes during a month in which new EU Ambassador to Kabul, Franz-Michael Mellbin said that Afghanistan was still one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Commentators have observed a general rollback of women’s rights in the country. In its worldwide report for 2013, Human Rights Watch said “With international interest in Afghanistan rapidly waning, opponents of women’s rights seized the opportunity to begin rolling back the progress made since the end of Taliban rule”.
And Presidential elections in April 2014 are still to come, described as one of two ‘potential disasters’ for women’s rights in Afghanistan along with the pull-out of international troops.
Western nations and donors have been heavily criticized by activists and in the media over their perceived silence during the last year when it comes to women’s rights; their failure to speak out on issues such as the pushing out by parliament of a law preventing violence against women, the continued prosecution of rape victims, the passing of a law that will effectively gag victims of domestic violence.
‘Well if my wife dies I am happy with this, I can have a new wife, save the child’.
Female Afghan MP Fawzia Koofi is quoted as describing “women’s rights as the most highly politicized issue in Afghanistan”, something that has contributed to the silence on women’s issues. Access to healthcare however, is a universal right not limited to women. With women dying in such numbers often due to entirely preventable causes, can Afghanistan and its western supporters continue to ignore women like those in Charkent?