Afghanistan's maternal and child mortality rates soar

KABUL, 4 August 2005 - While Afghanistan is progressing from a state of emergency to a focus on development, women and children continue to face an "acute emergency'' because of exceptionally high maternal and child mortality rates. "Infant mortality and under five mortality are very high, girls' enrolment is one of the lowest in the world and malnutrition affects almost half of the country's child population," said Cecilia Lotse, UNICEF's Regional Director for South Asia, after a a week-long visit to the region.

About 20 percent of Afghan children die before their fifth birthday while about 1,600 out of every 100,000 Afghan mothers die while giving birth or because of related complications.

An Afghan child today had a one in seven chance of dying before their first year as a result of illness and malnutrition. Moreover, one child in five died before his or her fifth birthday as a result of common, but preventable childhood diseases such as diarrhoea, pneumonia, malaria, typhoid and others that could be prevented by simple immunisations and sanitary practices, she added.

Lotse said all children -- but particularly girls -- were "very vulnerable'' in Afghanistan. Despite the return of several million children to school over the last three years, Lotse said girls' enrolment in secondary schools in Afghanistan was less than 10 percent.

School enrollment for young Afghan girls is among the lowest in the world. With female illiteracy rates as high as 85% in Afghanistan, millions of young women are unable to play a part in the social and economic development of their community, and of herself.

"This represents a tremendous waste of human potential and a tremendous unfulfilled promise,'' she said.

"They [girls] often return home [leave school for good] to help the family - particularly when the mother is a widow," she added. Additionally, the chances of an Afghan girl marrying early was much greater and 40 percent of Afghan women were married before the age of 18, with a third of these having children before they reached the age of 18.

"In some parts of Afghanistan, maternal death rates are as high as 6,000 per 100,000 women, according to Afghan public Health Ministry figures. "Afghan women don't live long lives,'' she said. "Afghanistan may be the one country in the world where women die before men.''

"It is essential that all of us - the Government, the UN, and others, - prioritise investments in education, that we increase the quality and accessibility of health care for women. How well Afghanistan does then, depends on how serious we are today about making the right investments, investments that must start with women and girls," Lotse said.

For more information, please contact: Edward Carwardine, UNICEF-Media, Kabul (0702 74729)