Journalists at Karzai press conference.

(WOMENSENEWS)–Today, the Congressional Women’s Caucus, a bipartisan meeting place for the 17 percent of House members who are female, will be holding a briefing on Afghanistan’s maternal mortality rate–the second highest in the world.

This is an issue I have followed with keen interest, especially since my 2005 trip to Saudi Arabia and my brush there with Afghanistan’s leadership.

Sponsored by Women’s Policy Inc., the caucus’s nonprofit arm, the speakers’ roster is expected to include MelanneVerveer, the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for international women’s issues, and Jhpiego Pashtoon Azfar, president of the Afghan Midwives Association.

Hosts include a list of Democrat and Republican members of Congress, including Reps. Carolyn Maloney from New York and Judy Biggert from Illinois, co-chairs of the caucus’s International Women’s Task Force.

Meanwhile, two factions within the U.S. women’s movement are in the middle of an intense debate–virtual firefights via email lists–over whether the presence of peacekeeping forces, including 68,000 U.S. military, enhances or threatens the security of women in war-torn Afghanistan.

On that particular debate, the argument boils down to how to best improve Afghan women’s safety: withdraw the peacekeeping forces, and thus reduce the violence, or support and expand the foreign military presence until the Taliban and the warlords are defeated. I believe strongly that both sides have strong arguments and I am personally torn.

Needed Change

But on the issue of maternal mortality, I am confident that we all can agree that something needs to change.

Being No. 2 in maternal mortality may be better than being No. 1–a distinction now held by Sierra Leone–but it’s still deplorable. In Afghanistan, 1 in 8 women die in childbirth, according to estimates by the Women Deliver Initiative, which works to promote action on maternal and newborn health. By contrast, that figure is 1 in 4,800 in the U.S.

UNICEF says 80 percent of the Afghan maternal deaths could be prevented if women had access to primary care and basic obstetrics. If accurate, that means that an estimated 14,000 Afghan women’s lives could be saved during pregnancy and childbirth.

Let’s hope this congressional attention–brought to us by funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation–can help somehow.

For me, at least, it provides an antidote to the discouragement I felt when visiting Jeddah, the more "liberal" city in Saudi Arabia, to attend its 2005 annual economic forum as a member of the press.

During that trip I sat on the women-only side of the press room, listening intently to Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan, hold forth on the potential economic ties between his nation and Saudi Arabia, including the trade in apricots and rugs.

The two nations historically are very close and the Taliban’s creed is similar to, but much more violent, than the Wahabi sect that controls Saudi Arabia.

Still a Rarity

I was still a rare sight–a female journalist from the West.

Yet I felt welcomed at the press conference not only by the 50 or so other female journalists–some enveloped in black abayas with their faces hidden–but by the 75 or so male reporters as well, even those in traditional Saudi garb.

Between the reporters and Karzai stood a virtual palisade comprised of the backs of his advisers and bodyguards.

The press had to sway back and forth, peeking between the spaces above their shoulders, to actually see Karzai, as charismatic in person as he seemed to be in news photos.

I had only one question for him, but I was not called upon. Determined, I tapped the shoulder of the adviser immediately in front of me and asked: What about maternal mortality?

He turned and looked at me, with both of us knowing his homeland had at the time the highest maternal morality rate in the world, even though Karzai’s spouse, Zeenat Quraishi, was an obstetrician.

The deep sadness in his eyes said it all. He shrugged, confirming that nothing had changed and turned his back to me again.

The conversation continued about trade among nations throughout the region.

Shifting the Focus to Women

Here, in the United States, the conversations about Afghanistan focus on the Taliban, car bombings and the U.S. troop buildup, announced by President Barack Obama in February.

The event today may be an indication that–amid all this–at least some people in power are also remembering the needless deaths of Afghan women, including the women representing us in Congress.

And perhaps–next–this group of powerful women will address another issue facing Afghan women.

The United Nation reported last week that women in Afghanistan are facing increasing violence almost eight years after the fall of the Taliban.

Focusing on examples of targeted killings of professional women, as well as a list of threats, discrimination, intimidation and harassment aimed at working women and their families, the 32-page report described the nation as one where rape is widespread and victims are more likely than perpetrators to receive punishment.

How can U.S. women help in all of this? It’s not an easy question, but it’s the right one to keep asking until the best answer finds its way to a solid, humanitarian, political consensus about the troop buildup and so much more.

Rita Henley Jensen is editor in chief of Women’s eNews.


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