Coalition drops promise to help Afghan women

 

Not a single penny of the British government's £178m annual Afghanistan reconstruction budget is being spent trying to save the tens of thousands of women who die in childbirth there.

Baroness Jenny Tonge said it was a shocking outrage that a government that publicly claimed to prioritise maternal health was not spending any of its Department for International Development (DfID) budget in a country where more mothers die than anywhere else.

UN figures show that the number of women who perish in childbirth in Afghanistan each year – 24,000 – is 10 times the civilians killed in the war. The country has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world due to factors that include girls being married off as young as 12 and forced to give birth without hospital care.

While the military cost of the conflict is estimated at £4 billion a year, politicians and senior military figures have consistently emphasised that the exit strategy for Afghanistan relies on reconstruction, governance and security.

Following the election of the Coalition in Westminster, Andrew Mitchell, the International Development Secretary, announced that the British Government would put family planning at the heart of its approach to women's health in the developing world.

"The international community has failed to assist millions of women by ignoring the complexities of why at least a third of a million women in the world's poorest countries die during pregnancy and childbirth each year," he said, adding: "DfID will now have an unprecedented focus on family planning."

Yet when Baroness Tonge, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health, asked how much of the Afghanistan budget was dedicated to maternal and newborn health, she discovered no money had been allocated.

"I think it is shocking," the Lib Dem peer said. "It is absolutely outrageous, having had praise showered on DfID for protecting the aid budget and having said that maternal health and family planning will be a top priority during this Government, we find that in Afghanistan, where women are probably in the worst position in the world, there is no budget line specifically dedicated to women's health."

When challenged on the subject, Baroness Sandip Verma, DfID spokeswoman in the House of Lords, said the Afghanistan spend for the next four years was focused on peace and security, economic stability, growth and jobs and getting the state to deliver improved basic services. "At this time the DfID does not directly support realisation of the maternal health millennium development goal in Afghanistan through its country programme," she conceded.

She said that the DfID was hoping to resume its contributions to the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund which helps pay for public health workers once a new IMF programme has been agreed. She added: "DfID does support the International Planned Parenthood Foundation centrally, to increase access to safe motherhood services in a number of countries including Afghanistan, through the Global Poverty Action Fund."

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