A man is pacing up and down outside the mother and child health clinic at Rokha in Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley until the breathy cry of a newborn baby breaks the tension. Dr Malalai, the head of the clinic, comes out and tells him: "It's a boy."
Only a few minutes later, it emerges that without the clinic, built by Afghan Mother and Child Rescue (AMCR), the charity The Independent on Sunday is supporting in its Christmas appeal, both mother and son might have been at risk. "Her previous child died after five days," says Dr Malalai, 29, who like many Afghans has only one name. "She was having problems this time, but she came to us early, and was able to have a normal birth."
Not everyone in the high, remote Panjshir, where 80 out of 5,500 pregnant women die every year, is so fortunate. In Afghanistan, 165 children out of every 1,000 do not live until their first birthday, but the two mother and child health clinics AMCR has built, at Rokha and Safied Chihr, have contributed to a sharp reduction in infant mortality in their areas. More mothers and children will be saved when a third clinic, under construction at Darra, comes into operation in 2008, and the charity is raising funds for a fourth.
Dr Malalai and her colleague at Safied Chihr, Dr Shimal, have to overcome deep-rooted prejudices and fears in a desperately poor society, where more than two-thirds of women are illiterate. Malnutrition and frequent pregnancies lead to anaemia, high blood pressure and pre-natal bleeding, but until clinics exclusively for women were built, many men were reluctant to bring their wives for consultations.
Most women preferred to give birth at home rather than in a cramped delivery room at a crowded general clinic, which meant that complications often proved fatal.
The Rokha clinic, by contrast, has safely delivered between 15 and 25 babies every month since Dr Malalai began work there two years ago. Only one fatality had occurred, just before our visit. "The mother came to us after labour had started, with an undetected heart problem," the doctor explains. "We immediately put her in an ambulance, but she and the baby died on the way to hospital. If she had come to us for check-ups, this would not have happened."
In Safied Chihr, which opened last summer, Dr Shimal proudly shows off a delivery room which still smells of fresh paint.
"We have had 80 births here without any problems," she says. It takes time to build up confidence among local mothers, she adds, "but if they come to a pre-natal group and see the facilities we have here, it gives them confidence".
AMCR, founded by a retired Coldstream Guards officer, Brigadier Peter Stewart-Richardson, is a small, hands-on charity. But its work attracted praise from the American-run provincial reconstruction team in Panjshir. This group of military and civilian officials, which channels official US aid to the province, helped to equip the Safied Chihr clinic, and hopes to get funding to build another on exactly the same model. "We use AMCR's clinics as a template," said Captain Kevin Kubly, a military doctor.
How you can bring hope to the most vulnerable
Thanks to the generosity of our readers, the 'IoS' Christmas appeal for Afghan Mother and Child Rescue has raised 15,000 halfway towards the cost of building another clinic for women and their children in one of the world's poorest countries.
But more is still needed please help.
Send cheques, made payable to "Afghan
Mother and Child Rescue", to: Afghan Mother and Child Rescue 128 Kensington Church Street London W8 4BH
A Gift Aid declaration form, which increases every pound you donate by 28p, can be downloaded at: www.amcr.org.uk/GIFT_AID_DONATION_FORM.pdf
By BACS transfer
Account name: Afghan Mother and Child Rescue
Account number: 00011780
Sort code: 40-52-40
For more information on Afghan Mother and Child Rescue (registered charity no 1097423), visit www.amcr.org.ukReuse content