Afghans' uphill battle begins with childbirth

afghanistan, women, childbirth
Women in Afghanistan face incredibly difficult challenges surrounding childbirth.
CBS News

One reason it's a struggle to make progress in Afghanistan is the nature of the country itself: It is one of the poorest and least developed; Most people are illiterate; Electricity and paved roads are rare outside the cities.

CBS News correspondent Mandy Clark reports that the first battle most Afghans face is at the very start of life.

The sound of a baby crying is the sound of Afghanistan's future. In larger cities, maternity care is improving. More beds are being added. Modern equipment is coming on line. But modern health care is a world away for most Afghans.

The province of Badakshan once recorded the world's highest maternal mortality rate - 6,500 mothers died per 100,000. In America, it's just 13.

For a pregnant woman, traveling the rough terrain to a clinic is nearly impossible. Only 1 in 4 births take place under professional care, so even the smallest medical issue can be fatal.

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CBS News witnessed one case in which the mother got to the clinic just in time. Her baby's heart rate was very accelerated. Doctors and midwives quickly stabilized her, and then safely delivered her new baby daughter.

Many girls are married off before they are even 16, and infants born to such young girls are 60 percent more likely to die. Hemorrhaging and severe infection threaten the mothers as well.

One bit of hope: USAID helps sponsor midwife classes to fill the gaping hole in the number of trained medical professionals, a result of the Taliban's prohibition on educating women.

More than 2,500 midwives have graduated, and the infant mortality rate has since declined 22 percent.

One midwife, named Fatima, said she took the course because her sister-in-laws died in childbirth and there was no doctor. She said that inspired her to help people in her community.

But it's help that often arrives too late. One young girl went into labor with twins, but didn't get to the hospital in time. It's her second pregnancy to end this way.

"I lost my babies," she said, "but if I did not come here I would have lost my life as well."

Here though, even successful outcomes are tenuous. The childbirth CBS News witnessed earlier ended with the infant wrapped in the only clothes available, soiled and dirty, putting her at great risk for infection. Her future is as uncertain as her country's.