‘The Taliban killed a midwife who refused to leave a woman in labour’

6 months ago 93

When Afghanistan’s archetypal midwife-led commencement centre opened successful the impoverished territory of Dasht-e-Barchi successful occidental Kabul this twelvemonth it was a awesome of anticipation and defiance.

It began receiving expectant mothers successful June, conscionable implicit a twelvemonth aft a devastating onslaught by gunmen connected the maternity wing astatine the section infirmary near 24 radical dead, including 16 mothers, a midwife and 2 young children.

For Zahra Mirzaei, its motorboat – on with a 2nd commencement centre successful the eastbound of the superior – marked the culmination of a decennary advocating for women’s commencement rights.

As president of the Afghan Midwives Association (AMA), Mirzaei was instrumental successful establishing the midwife-led units promoting an ethos of respectful, bespoke attraction distant from an over-medicalised setting.

“In our state this attack to large women is groundbreaking and determination was a large feeling of anticipation erstwhile we opened our doors,” she says.

“Women who had antecedently experienced undignified, debased prime attraction successful poorly staffed hospitals were pleasantly amazed to observe determination is different mode of doing things.”

The units successful Dasht-e-Barchi and Arzan Qimat were established with method enactment and grooming from the Europe-based Midwifery Unit Network (MUNet) and backing from 2 NGOs which we cannot sanction for information reasons.

A pistillate   is supported successful  progressive  labour by 3  midwives.
A pistillate is supported successful progressive labour astatine a commencement centre successful Arzan Qimat. Photograph: Nooria Omidy/Handout via Hannah Summers

In the archetypal weeks the centres, staffed with a full of 75 midwives, were each welcoming 10 to 13 newborns a day. But arsenic connection spread, expanding numbers arrived and this soon climbed to 25 to 30.

By precocious July, Mirzaei was preoccupied with however to negociate the emergence successful cases. But her enactment was overshadowed by a increasing consciousness of the Taliban’s subject offensive, which had gathered unexpected pace.

News of the Afghan government’s imminent illness amid the withdrawal of US troops was, to Mirzaei, personally and professionally shattering.

“Suddenly everything I had worked tirelessly for was nether threat,” she says. As a Hazara Shia and a longstanding campaigner for women’s rights, the 33-year-old knew she and her 3 children were astatine risk.

“Previous Taliban governments person killed thousands of Hazara people without immoderate reason. Also I knew my feminist enactment and content successful women’s equality would ne'er beryllium accepted by the Taliban regime,” says Mirzaei, who successful 2020 was named 1 of 100 outstanding pistillate nurses, midwives and leaders providing wellness services successful hard times by Women successful Global Health.

As the US and its conjugation partners scrambled to airlift thousands of radical from the country, warnings were filtering done from Mirzaei’s location municipality that she was a imaginable Taliban target.

On the time Kabul fell, plunging the state into turmoil, she near her bureau for the past time, fleeing successful specified a hurry she was incapable to cod her shoes. “We didn’t expect the concern to escalate truthful fast,” she says.

Later that nighttime she was woken by the dependable of her eight-year-old girl sobbing: “I went to her and she said: ‘Mummy, I’m frightened that erstwhile I’m 12 the Taliban volition travel and instrumentality maine to get joined and I won’t beryllium capable to spell to school.’ That was truthful achy to perceive that I promised determination and past to get america out.”

After calling each interaction she could deliberation of, she heard from a person successful the US who could help. Mirzaei near location with her household astatine 1am connected 23 August, inactive wearing the flimsy slippers successful which she’d fled her office.

They spent a harrowing 12 hours waiting successful a sewer adjacent the airdrome earlier being rescued by US troops and airlifted to Qatar. From determination they were transferred to a exile campy successful confederate Spain.

Mirzaei successful  a exile  campy  successful  Spain
Mirzaei, who is present successful a exile campy successful Spain, says she was was heartbroken to springiness up the relation of president of the Afghan Midwives Association. Photograph: Katie Cox/The Guardian

Speaking from the Spanish naval basal successful Rota, Mirzaei explains however leaving Afghanistan besides meant, regrettably, stepping down arsenic president of the AMA.

While she was heartbroken to springiness up the role, she remains a subordinate of the advisory committee and is moving remotely to enactment the organisation including her successor – a pistillate from a antithetic taste radical who is much apt to beryllium accepted by the regime.


As the eighth miss of 10 siblings, Mirzaei understood from a young property that boys and girls were not seen arsenic equal. “I had 2 brothers but my begetter wanted much boys and it made maine bittersweet girls were not allowed to scope their afloat imaginable successful our community.”

Growing up successful the state of Sar-e Pol, wherever poorness was wide and literacy rates were poor, 16-year-old Mirzaei recovered acquisition opportunities were limited.

An brushwood astatine the section infirmary acceptable her connected the way to becoming a midwife. In the waiting country she witnessed a pistillate desperately searching for a midwife lone to beryllium abused by a wellness worker.

“This incidental truly affected maine – the mode they treated her was shameful. When I saw the doc I asked her what a midwife was and wherefore it was truthful important.

“I liked the dependable of midwifery – it spoke to the feminist successful me. That benignant doc changed my beingness by explaining however I could enrol connected a assemblage acquisition midwife programme.”

A twelvemonth aboriginal Mirzaei graduated with a diploma having already joined the AMA arsenic a student. “I was inspired by its plans for improving the profession. For maine the astir important happening was for women to person evidence-based, respectful maternity care.”

But starting retired arsenic a infirmary midwife successful 2006 she was acrophobic by what she saw.

A midwife supports a pistillate   breastfeeding her newborn baby.
Early breastfeeding, skin-to-skin interaction and delayed cord clamping was encouraged astatine the units Mirzaei helped to create. Photograph: Nooria Omidy/Handout via Hannah Summers

“There would beryllium 150 deliveries a time successful a infirmary with lone 4 oregon 5 midwives. Women would beryllium near to springiness commencement successful the country oregon successful the toilet. The astir achy happening was seeing however exhausted the midwives were – they couldn’t enactment large women emotionally and determination was adjacent carnal abuse.”

While women successful distant areas typically springiness commencement without aesculapian assistance, oregon sometimes with a midwife, childbirth successful municipality infirmary settings is highly medicalised.

“These facilities are staffed by doctors who don’t look to cognize their occupation statement due to the fact that they are overrun dealing with straightforward births,” says Mirzaei. “The attraction is dehumanised and the usage of hormone drips and episiotomies is regular practice.”

Afghanistan has 1 of the highest maternal mortality rates successful the world, though the fig of women dying successful childbirth has slowed from 1,450 per 100,000 unrecorded births successful 2000 to 638 successful 2017, according to UN data.

In 2012 Mirzaei became a provincial manager for the AMA and aboriginal moved to Kabul to coordinate a midwives’ mentorship programme for the organisation.

She joined a tiny but increasing cohort to execute a BA successful midwifery aft graduating from Zawul Institute of Higher Education successful 2016. Two years aboriginal she was elected president of the AMA and made it her ngo to found midwife-led units.

The exemplary would determination distant from aesculapian interventions towards a absorption connected progressive birth, skin-to-skin interaction and aboriginal breastfeeding.

In 2003 determination were just 467 midwives operating successful Afghanistan – the terrible shortage brought astir by the Taliban’s prohibition connected educating girls and women during the preceding years. This fig has since grown to 6,376 presently successful objective practice.

A 2018 Afghanistan Health Survey recovered conscionable a 5th of large women had received the recommended 4 antenatal attraction visits and less than 60% of births were overseen by a skilled healthcare professional.

There were 119 attacks by violent groups connected healthcare facilities successful Afghanistan successful 2019, according to the World Health Organization. Then successful May 2020 came the massacre astatine the maternity ward of the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital.

Among the dormant was a midwife workfellow of Mirzaei, Maryam Noorzad. “She was killed due to the fact that she refused to permission a pistillate unsocial successful labour. The babe was coming and aft it was calved a gunman entered and killed each 3 of them.”

Not lone was the onslaught a horrific transgression against large women, babies and infirmary unit – it was besides a devastating battle connected decades of enactment to trim maternal and newborn mortality successful Afghanistan.

Despite the information fears, the AMA wanted to found 1 of the midwife-led units successful the aforesaid territory to plug the spread near by the onslaught connected the hospital, wherever determination had been 16,000 babies calved successful 2019. Many of the midwives who survived the 2020 onslaught were among the highly trained unit taken connected by the AMA to tally the caller centres.

A newborn babe  connected  a maternity ward successful  Herat successful  February
A newborn connected a maternity ward successful Herat successful February. It is feared decades of enactment to trim maternal and newborn mortality successful Afghanistan could beryllium threatened by the Taliban’s instrumentality to power. Photograph: Jalil Rezayee/EPA

The occurrence of the centres relies connected one-to-one attraction and requires numbers to beryllium kept astatine a manageable level. To conscionable the request it was Mirzaei’s ambition to unfastened much units crossed Kabul and beyond.

But for now, astatine best, her imagination is connected hold. The centres closed aft the Taliban takeover and portion 1 has precocious reopened galore unit stay excessively fearful to spell to work. Some midwives person already been interrogated by the Taliban for moving astir without a chaperone.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has estimated that without contiguous enactment determination could beryllium 51,000 further maternal deaths betwixt present and 2025.

In Spain, Mirzaei is preparing to alert to the US to commencement the adjacent section of her life. Her contiguous aboriginal is uncertain but she has accepted an connection to survey planetary maternal wellness astatine City, University of London, which she’s had to defer until she tin put a visa.

“Every time I unfastened my telephone and look astatine photos that were taken astatine our commencement centres. It gives maine hope. Their contiguous occurrence rests connected the wider governmental concern but we volition not cease our efforts to bash everything we tin for girls and women successful Afghanistan.”

  • Many midwives who person campaigned for women’s rights successful Afghanistan present find themselves targeted by the Taliban and person been forced into hiding, portion others are astatine hazard due to the fact that of their ethnicity. The Association of Radical Midwives is raising funds to assistance those seeking to settee successful the UK. To donate delight sojourn this crowdfunding page.