Sakila the life-saver

Rachel Maranto of Save the Children shares some good news for maternal health from an unlikely place: Afghanistan.

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Sakila. Photo credit: Rachel Maranto/Save the Children
This is Sakila. Fourteen years ago she nearly died giving birth to her son.

“I was giving birth at home, there were complications and I fell unconscious. Eventually my family found a way to get me to a doctor. I was lucky I survived.”

Sakila was fortunate. Over the past 14 years, many thousands of mothers in Afghanistan have not been so lucky. But a new survey shows this is changing –- the number of children and mothers dying in Afghanistan has fallen significantly.

It is women like Sakila that are to thank. Sakila is now a community health worker: “My experience motivated me to serve my community. I want to work to support other women and their children.”

Sakila is one of a growing force of community based life-savers in Afghanistan. There are now 22,000 trained community health workers across the country, from just 2,500 in 2004. They are men and women that serve their communities, unpaid, to save lives every day.

Community health workers treat illnesses like pneumonia or diarrhea, which can otherwise be deadly, and play a critical role in promoting healthy lifestyles and encouraging their community to make best use of the health facilities.

By bringing care closer to the community, we are seeing mothers and children’s lives changing, yet the survey shows more attention needs to be given to the plight of newborns. While the rate of children dying under the age of five has halved, it has fallen by only one-third for newborns.

Shakila is part of an innovative pilot project, run by Save the Children, in a district outside Kabul, that trains and supports community health workers to provide specific support to mothers and newborn babies.

“We register pregnant women, and visit them to explain why it is so important to go to a clinic and have a skilled birth attendant with you when giving birth. Then we check up on them and their new baby to make sure they are healthy,” Sakila continued.

Many women that become community health workers aren’t able to read or write, so the project uses pictures and visuals in learning materials. The approach is working. In a country in which only one third of women give birth in a health facility, in the area where the project is taking place, only a quarter of women still give birth at home.

Fourteen years ago, Sakila nearly lost her life. Now Sakila is one of many women that have brought care to the doorsteps of their neighbors. The news today shows that engaging communities to save lives works. It clear that by continuing to invest in the success so far, we can maintain momentum and save many more lives. Women like Sakila are ready to take on the next challenge –- to bring a new focus to saving the lives of newborns.