03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Lessons on Birth Control from Afghanistan

Some 536,000 women die in pregnancy, according to the World Health Organization. That figure has not changed in 30 years, even as child mortality rates have been reduced.

How do we save those women? I found one answer in a small story in The New York Times last week. The dateline was Afghanistan.

The reporter described a group of mullahs attending a class on birth control. Afghanistan has the second highest rate of maternal mortality, second only to Sierra Leone. The mullahs were "reluctant participants"; the writer acknowledged and had been paid to attend. Yet they listened, partly because the class was taught by one of their own, a fellow mullah.

Islam does not forbid birth control but having a child is considered a gift from God, the more births, the greater the blessings. On average, women bear six children in this country which has an average per capita income of $700 a year.

What were the lessons? Wait two years before having another baby to give your wife's body a chance to rest, breast feed babies for 21 months. Simple advice, but new to a country where old traditions are difficult to change.

Providing birth control information and giving out pills is still dangerous in some areas. Many fear that birth control is an American plot to weaken the country.

If the mullahs decide to approve spacing their children and keeping both mothers and babies healthy, the transformation could be dramatic. Islam has one advantage: the mullahs are obeyed. "If the clerics will support this, no one will oppose it, " one trainer said.

If spacing children takes hold, not only would the maternal mortality rate plunge, but the average family income would rise. It may seem strange to have to ask for the approval of the mullahs to enable women to survive childbirth. But as I think about it, we in the United States of America, who do not suffer like women in poor countries, still have to ask for the approval of the 83% male Congress for the right to have insurance plans cover abortions.


Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton's VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.

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