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AFGHANISTAN: Imams to the rescue in curbing maternal mortality

KABUL, 12 January 2009 (IRIN) - Mohammad Tawasoli, an imam at a mosque in Wardak Province, central Afghanistan, tells the local community to maintain a two-year gap between pregnancies and avoid child marriage - to help mother and infant remain healthy.

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"Islam does not allow the killing of the foetus but it also does not want mothers to face health risks because of… constant pregnancies," Tawasoli said.

"Islam does not oppose delayed pregnancies if this helps the health and well-being of mothers," he told IRIN in Kabul, adding that those who think otherwise believe in superstition rather than true Islamic principles.

Religious scholars such as Tawasoli wield strong influence among people in rural communities where high rates of illiteracy and lack of awareness about health issues contribute to the deaths of thousands of mothers and children every year.

Every year 17,000 women die due to pregnancy-related complications and one child in four does not reach his/her fifth birthday, largely owing to curable diseases, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Food insecurity and lack of access to health services are weakening the health and nutritional status of women, and multiple and short-spaced pregnancies often cause early deaths, according to health specialists.

The common practice of child marriage is also a major factor in early deaths among mothers.

"Child marriage and forced marriage are in contradiction with Islam," said Abdul Karim, an imam in Kabul.

Ending ignorance

The ministries of women's affairs and religious affairs, backed by a few aid agencies, have been working to involve religious leaders in a strategy to reduce pregnancy-related maternal mortality.

Over the past year, dozens of imams participated in training workshops in Kabul at which gender experts tried to convince them to spread the word on birth gaps and legal-age marriage.

"Some people wrongly think birth gaps are not Islamic. We want to tackle such ignorance with the help of mullahs [imams]," Hosai Wardak, a gender specialist working with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in Kabul, told IRIN.

In the northeastern province of Badakhshan, which reportedly has the highest maternal mortality rate in the country, such efforts have borne fruit.

However, in the volatile southern and eastern provinces, where Taliban insurgents have assassinated dozens of pro-government religious leaders, preaching about family planning seems to be a risky and unattractive job.

The government and its partners may need to adopt alternative approaches in areas where imams are wary of encouraging people to ensure birth gaps, and wed under-age girls, experts said.

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Theme (s): Health & Nutrition,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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