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Women leading change in health


In a country ravaged by decades of conflict, a unique program is seeing women in Afghanistan being trained in community-based health and care for the first time. The program, being run by the Afghan Red Crescent, is resulting in less death in childbirth, better hygiene practice, children being vaccinated along with better localised treatment of the sick and wounded.

Dr Naheed works for the Afghan Red Crescent in the Health and Care program - a program that operates across all 34 provinces in Afghanistan. She is one of three female trainers based in the north of the country where more than 300 women have been trained in community-based health promotion. Dr Naheed says this groundbreaking program is the first of its kind in Afghanistan.

"Women are trainers in other fields like education, but not in healthcare. Afghan Red Crescent is the first organisation in Afghanistan to have such a program," says Dr Naheed.

With funding from the Australian government and support from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the program targets 10 million people over four years, predominately women and children. Access to health clinics and mobile health teams is a priority, coupled with the provision of education and training in community based health, hygiene, reproductive health and first aid.

Four years since starting with Afghan Red Crescent, Dr Naheed and her female colleagues are making a profound impact on the health and wellbeing of women and children in communities across Afghanistan.

"Women think really positively about the program. When they see a female trainer they are comfortable and feel empowered to talk about their issues and to tell other women about health care."

After graduating from medicine, Dr Naheed applied for a job with Afghan Red Crescent because she wanted to help people in the most isolated rural villages. In many villages, it is often difficult for people to get to a clinic, with no ambulances and few transport options.

"I really enjoy working with rural villages," says Dr Naheed. "In the first training I conducted, the women talked to me about their health problems especially those they have in taking care of their children. I felt quite emotional at the number of issues they faced."

"One woman told me that before she attended the training she used to spend a lot of money trying to get to the health clinic with her children, but now she knows how to look after them better so she doesn't need to go to the clinic so often," says Dr Naheed.

As a trainer, Dr Naheed's job is to increase the education levels of women in remote communities, improving their knowledge and influencing their practices. Among her core areas of focus are preventing diarrhoeal disease, increasing immunisation rates and making sure that women seek health care before and after having babies.

"In one of the villages we work in, the traditional practice was for women to deliver children in the home and this led to many deaths in childbirth, for both women and babies," explains Dr Naheed.

"I spent some time with the elder women in the village discussing the issue and talking about the benefits of giving birth in a clinic. The women now accept that going to the clinic to give birth is a much safer practice."

Dr Naheed, one of three Afghan Red Crescent female health trainers based in northern Afghanistan, where over 300 women have been trained in community based health promotion.

Dr Naheed, who grew up in the city, says running trainings in remote villages has been a very new experience for her.

"When I visit the remote villages to conduct trainings, I usually stay for 10 days and I have to be accompanied by a male member of my family," Dr Naheed says. She explains that her brother joins her as he knows how important the work is. "My brother says to me: 'it is your duty and you have to fulfil it'. If I didn't have the support of my family I couldn't do this work."

Sharin, a midwife and another of the female trainers in the program, explains that the great impact of the Health and Care program comes from the two-tiered approach of community-level education coupled with improved access to health care facilities, operated by Afghan Red Crescent.

"In the past people did not vaccinate their children, they didn't understand the importance and they feared that their children would come down with a deadly fever if they received a vaccination," Sharin explains.

"We give them full information about the vaccination process and tell them that it is normal for a child to have a fever for two or three days. We explain that once a child is vaccinated against polio, for example, they will then be immune to the illness," she adds.

"I am really hopeful for the future. We are seeing changes in these villages and I look forward to being able to work on more projects that help to impact peoples lives in such a positive way."

 

Main photo: Midwife Sharin has been working for Afghan Red Crescent for four years as a health trainer. She explains that women and children now have improved hygiene practices and she has witnessed positive changes in the communities being supported by Afghan Red Crescent.