Tordi, 45, finally quit her opium habit after six stillborn births and delivered a healthy baby girl. “I was using opium to ease my body pains and to be able to work better,” she told IRIN in her home in the Shortapa District of northern Balkh Province.
Addiction, long hours of hard labour and poor nutrition had weakened Tordi’s body so much that she almost died during her sixth delivery before her family rushed her to a district hospital.
“Doctors told me if I don’t stop using opium I will die in my next pregnancy,” she said.
Tordi’s predicament is common among women working in Afghanistan’s traditional carpet-weaving industry, who use opium as a painkiller or to stave off fatigue.
The country produces about 200 million sqm of carpets and rugs every year, with annual exports valued at US$170 million. From sheep breeders who produce the wool to merchants who export the final product, about six million out of a population of 30 million are involved in the business, according to the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency.
Opium addiction among rural women has been exacerbated by a lack of access to health services either due to cultural restrictions or dearth of health centres, say health workers.
“Women use opium not for fun or luxury but as the only available painkiller to them,” said Mahbooba Ebadi, an obstetrician in Balkh.
It is unclear how many Afghan women use opium, but a 2005 addiction survey by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) put the number of adult female drug users in the country at 120,000. At least 900,000 Afghans were estimated to be drug addicts out of a population of 25 million in 2005.
“When my children are restless and cry I cannot work properly,” said Feroza, a carpet weaver and a mother of six in northern Faryab Province. “When I give them a small piece of opium they become calm and fall asleep, allowing us to work.”
Pediatricians say giving opium to infants is extremely harmful. “Opium is like poison to an infant,” said Homayun Ansari, a physician in Balkh.
Afghanistan not only has one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world, but also one of the highest fertility rates in Asia, according to UN agencies.
Amid widespread food insecurity and a dearth of quality obstetric care, an Afghan woman on average gives birth to five or six children, despite serious health risks in pre- and post-natal periods.
About 39 percent of children younger than five in Afghanistan are underweight, 54 percent suffer from stunting or sub-optimal physical growth, 53 percent suffer from vitamin A deficiency and more than 60 percent suffer from iron deficiency and anaemia. As a result, about 600 children under the age of five die every day from pneumonia, diarrhoea and other preventable diseases, according to the UN Children’s Fund.