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Health and care means life

18-year-old Khojesta delicately dabs disinfectant on Zainab's hand. Zainab is not an ordinary patient. An elder in the local village, she is mentoring 20 female Afghan Red Crescent volunteers in Joy-e Zindan village. The village is nestled in a rural valley in Samangan Province, northern Afghanistan.

Khojesta, smiles respectfully, clearly enjoying being educated by her team leader. "The trainings are good. They help us to serve our village. We use what we have learnt on a daily basis," Khojesta says.

Just days earlier, Khojesta's training helped her to stem the blood flow after her cousin suffered a serious fall and head injury. "I was able to bandage the wound but he was feeling faint because he had lost so much blood and we took him to hospital," Khojesta says.

Zainab explains that they are also learning how to prevent and cope with serious illness, such as diarrhoea, malaria and tuberculosis.

It is no accident that both Zainab and Khojesta have embarked on a path to provide better health care for their community. Zainab lost two children when she was younger. One died during child birth. The other child miscarried during the war.

Khojesta lost her father in the war when she was nine-months-old. She is the only child in her family and is driven to do well. "When I finish school I want to be a teacher, serve my people and make my mother happy," she says.

Zainab and Khojesta are two of hundreds of women being trained across Afghanistan by the Afghanistan Red Crescent Society. The AusAID-supported Health and Care program aims to reach 10 million people over four years, mainly women and children in remote areas.

In a country finding its feet again after decades of conflict, Australian Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are partnering with Afghan Red Crescent to improve and rebuild their health care services.

One in five deaths among women in Afghanistan are a result of pregnancy and childbirth, according to the Afghanistan Mortality Survey. Almost all of these deaths are preventable. The United Nations says diarrhoea, acute respiratory infections and illnesses that can be prevented by vaccination, account for 60 per cent of child deaths.

Some of Afghanistan's leading female doctors are paving the way to improve the health and wellbeing of millions of people across all 34 Provinces. Dr Naheed is one of dozens of doctors dedicating her life to work with Afghan Red Crescent. She says it is "groundbreaking" that she and other female leaders are being trained in community based health, hygiene, reproductive health and first aid.

Dr Tamin is a doctor working with one of the 17 mobile health teams, to provide health care to thousands of patients in some of the most remote villages around the country. Close to 50 women and children are queued up to see Dr Tamin and his team, which includes a pharmacist and a nurse. This week they are in Balkh province in the north of the country.

A young mother, Saifoora, looks on nervously as Dr Tamin examines the stomach of her seven-week-old baby, Parwarna. Sensitively, he explains the child has an infection. While writing a script for antibiotics, he lets Saifoora know that the infection could be very dangerous or even fatal if not treated.

Despite the hardships of spending three weeks a month on the road, Dr Tamin says his job is incredibly rewarding.

"When I see a patient who we have helped get better and they are healthy and smiling, this is the best part of the job."

Dr Naheed has a similar view, saying that she is witnessing change in the country's health infrastructure. "The women I work with say to me 'we were like blind people and now you light the way for us and show us the road ahead.' They respect us. Sometimes they kiss my hands in gratitude."


Photo: 17-year-old Khojesta brushing up her first-aid skills with Joy-e Zindan village elder Zainab. (Australian Red Cross/Madeline Wilson)