Children Health

Taliban Health Minister Denies Afghanistan’s Mother and Child Mortality Rate is Skyrocketing

On December 21, 2023, Taliban Health Minister Qalandar Ibad discussed the state of health care in Afghanistan with Agenda AWANI, a Malaysian news channel, during his visit to the Southeast Asian country.

Qalandar dismissed a World Health Organization (WHO) report that said Afghanistan’s healthcare system was collapsing, with shortages of medical supplies and healthcare professionals, and unpaid wages.

Qalandar dismissed the report, claiming the Taliban government has made “significant improvements” in Afghanistan’s healthcare system, building 300 new hospitals, extending coverage to rural areas — even achieving “100% healthcare coverage throughout Afghanistan.” That would be significant progress compared with the 30% provided by Afghanistan’s previous government.

Qalandar also claimed reports that mortality rates for women and children in Afghanistan have increased are “fake”:

“Most of the time they talk about mortality of the mother and children … but when we ask from where you have got this data, they have no answer for us. So, I think some of their reports are fake reports.”

The Taliban’s claims that its government has achieved 100% healthcare coverage and its denial that maternal and child mortality rates have increased are false.

The World Health Organization declared a health care emergency in Afghanistan in August 2023.

The WHO reported that “millions of people” in Afghanistan had “poor or no access to health and food” and were facing a “severe risk of malnutrition and disease outbreaks.”

It also highlighted that the Taliban’s ban on education and workforce participation for women and girls “further intensified” their vulnerability, “as they face increased obstacles in accessing healthcare.”

Qalandar’s claim that the origins of reports about Afghanistan’s high maternal and child mortality rates are mirky is also false. The high maternal and child mortality rates have been reported by multiple international agencies on the basis of information collected inside Afghanistan.

An example is a report titled “The Maternal and Child Health Crisis in Afghanistan,” published jointly last October by the Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, whose scholars interviewed and polled hundreds of health professionals in Afghanistan.

Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

They reported that “there has been a severe deterioration of conditions for providing maternal and child health care in Afghanistan,” with more than 64% of medical staff in five urban centers reporting the death of a mother and/or a child in the past month at the facility where they worked.

The Taliban’s restrictive gender policies in education and employment further limit women’s access to health care, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (OCHA) Rapid Gender Analysis reported in November 2023.

The OCHA report highlighted that women comprise less than 30% of health workers, mainly in urban areas, while social norms and Taliban regulations restrict women from seeing male doctors.

“In 2022, only 10 per cent of women could cover their basic health needs with the health services available to them, compared with 23 per cent of men,” the report said.

That crisis remains acute in 2024, the United Nations Development Agency (UNDP) reported on January 16.

“Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for infants, children, and mothers,” UNDP said. “The country has alarmingly high infant mortality rates, and thousands of Afghan women lose their lives each year due to preventable pregnancy-related causes.”

Another contributing factor is a Taliban-encouraged increase in child marriages in Afghanistan. That has boosted teen pregnancies and elevated the risk of health complications and birth mortality, PassBlue, an independent outlet covering U.N. activities, reported last December.

It cited Dr. Najmussama Shefajo, head of the Afghan Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, who runs an obstetrics and gynecology clinic in Kabul.

“I had a patient of about 15 years of age who couldn’t conceive because she was a child,” she said. “She was brought by her mother-in-law to [help her to] conceive. I was telling [the mother-in-law] that she was just a kid, but they pushed this child to conceive.”

Such cases occur routinely, every day, Shefajo told PassBlue.

The healthcare system “improvements” that Qalandar credited to Taliban governance are, in fact, due to foreign funding.

Afghanistan’s healthcare system remains heavily dependent on outside donors and international humanitarian aid, which fund, among other things, the salaries of Afghan healthcare providers.

While U.S. troops left Afghanistan in 2021, the United States remains the country’s largest aid donor.

As the office of the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reported last October 30, the U.S. provided more than $2.5 billion to Afghanistan between 2022 and 2023 to “address critical needs of the Afghan people in several key sectors — health, education, agriculture, food security, and livelihoods — and are also supporting civil society and media, focusing on women, girls, and broad human rights protections.”

Also last October, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) reported that the Taliban’s interference in the activities of the United Nations and other aid agencies during 2023 limited “access to lifesaving assistance.” The U.N. documented 127 such incidents, including the Taliban’s arrest of aid workers and “violence against humanitarian personnel.”

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