Changing centuries of Afghan tradition: Midwives save lives

Sadya Naeemi* received the 2011 ICM Save the Children Every One Midwife Award, presented during the opening ceremony at the International Confederation of Midwives’ Triennial Congress in Durban, South Africa.

Soon after receiving the award, HNN interviewed Sadya about midwifery, newborn health in Afghanistan, and what keeps her committed to newborns and mothers in her village.

Sadya’s story is remarkable. She is from a rural village in Afghanistan, and the only woman living in her district who had completed high school. Her community recommended her to attend midwifery school, after which she returned to serve mothers and newborns in her village.

What does this recognition bring to you and midwifery in Afghanistan? 

Growing up in northern Afghanistan, I was the only girl in primary school. When I was 16 years old, a group of midwives from the Midwifery School came in search of women who could be trained in midwifery, and they selected me. It was very difficult because I had to study night and day in order to finish high school and midwifery school. My family had to move to the city in order for me to do this. Despite these challenges, I gave 100% effort because I knew that the village needed me to return and work as a midwife.

Winning this award is a huge honour and a dream come true but it is also in recognition of overcoming the challenges that my family and I have faced on this journey. It is a privilege to be a midwife and serve the people in my village.

What is the most remarkable thing you will bring back to Afghanistan from your experience at ICM? 

The Helping Babies Breathe workshop was very influential because they gave me a resuscitation doll and equipment which I will be able to use in my work.

The “Road to Durban” march on Saturday with 1000 fellow midwives was like nothing I have ever seen before with singing and dancing! I hope one day to see a march like this in Afghanistan.

Were there other moments that will influence your work and dedication?

I was surprised to see that there are male midwives at the ICM Congress because culturally in Afghanistan midwives must be women. I am teaching a literacy course to women in my village and encouraging families to educate their daughters so that they too can practice midwifery.

When I go back to Afghanistan, I will share my experience with other midwives and also with my colleagues in the clinic because I have learned a lot at the Congress.

Can you tell us a memorable story you have of when you have saved a life?

One night a woman was brought to the health facility with bleeding and shock. She had had a home delivery by a TBA, and her placenta was not removed properly. I attended to the patient, removing her placenta by hand and treating her shock. Fortunately, I was able to save her life and she is now a mother.

What message would you like to share with the rest of the world on the importance of newborn health and midwives?

There are many things that midwives can do to save newborn lives. In Afghanistan, one of the most important things we do is educate and counsel mothers. Midwives are important and can encourage mothers to seek care early, deliver in the health facilities, and provide care for their newborns.

Any comments on your future as a midwife?

I want to continue practicing midwifery in my district because that is what I have been called to do,  serve my people in my village. I enjoy my work!

Catherine (left) and Sadya (center) with a team from Save the Children. Above, Sadya during the Road to Durban with the Afghan Midwives Association.

In Afghanistan, most women deliver at home either with a Traditional Birth Attendant, relative, or alone. Afghanistan suffers a severe shortage of health workers and is the world’s most dangerous country to be a mother.

Sadya is recognized for changing centuries of tradition in her rural village through convincing more men to allow their pregnant wives to seek skilled help at a clinic, and by encouraging the women themselves to do so, resulting in increased antenatal care, facility births, and postnatal care.

Photos: Farzana Wahidy/Save the Children, ICM

*For security concerns, Sadya’s name has been changed.

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