This year International Women’s Day carries a significant weight. As the Women’s Revolution has been heating up around the world, women and men from all walks of life have come together to not only stand with women, but in support of the history of empowered women who have raised the bar for all humankind. In places like the U.S., there are a number of pioneering women who have left a blueprint to show the world how important women are. In other places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, this women’s revolution is just beginning, and women in these areas are the ones creating the path forward for the future.
Maternal heath care is one of those issues women in Central Asia are just starting to fight for, while women in the west are following a course set out years ago. In most western countries women have access to advanced care during pregnancy and birth, but in areas of Central Asia, access to modern healthcare can be much more challenging.
This lack of health care is most prevalent in rural areas, and the devastating toll it takes on mothers and their young children is astounding. In Pakistan nearly 200 mothers in 100,000 die due to complications with pregnancy, and in Afghanistan that number jumps to nearly 400 women for every 100,000. The two main obstacles for women are lack of trained health care workers and lack of women’s rights in education. While the situation seems insurmountable, conditions are improving, and it is women who are leading the charge.
Just a century ago the situation was similar for women in rural areas of the U.S. Most of the women gave birth in their homes with only family members or a neighbor at their side, much like the women in rural Central Asia still do today. Back then, the U.S. mortality rate was over 800 in 100,000 for mothers. It was a woman, Mary Breckinridge, who dedicated her life to creating solutions for rural women and providing adequate education so nurse-midwives had the proper training to help mothers in the rural Appalachian Mountains.
Mary Breckinridge was born in Kentucky to a wealthy family and enjoyed education both in the U.S. and in Europe. In 1906 she was widowed at 26 and lost her two children. Suddenly alone, she dedicated her life to healthcare for women and children. She earned her nursing degree in 1910 at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York and worked as a nurse in France during World War I.
After the war she earned a degree in public health from Columbia University and decided she would focus on creating a network to address the dire lack of maternal and early child care in rural Kentucky. She studied in London to become a certified nurse and spent time in Scotland studying the rural nursing system there.
Mary returned to Kentucky in 1925 and established the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS), which served poor farm families in the Appalachian Mountains. Her staff, who were mostly trained in Europe until she established the Frontier School of Midwifery, rode horses along rugged mountain roads through rain and snow for miles, to provide trained medical care for mothers in labor and their newborn babies.
The FNS is still in service today, and in its first 50 years the trained midwives delivered 17,053 babies with only 11 maternal deaths. Mary’s determination to help rural women and her dedication to create educational opportunities for other midwives saved an incredible amount of lives. She was a pioneer for woman’s health and her program served as a model for other rural health care systems across the U.S.
Shakeela is following in Mary Breckinridge’s footsteps, one century later. Born in the Hushe Valley of Baltistan, Pakistan, Shakeela’s upbringing differed greatly from Mary’s wealthy childhood.
Hushe is the last village at the end of a long valley in the Karakorum Mountains. Life is hard at 10,000ft, especially with little access to education or a way to make a living.
Shakeela’s father was the first educated person in Hushe valley, and he was determined that his daughter would follow in his footsteps. When she graduated from the government school there, she traveled to Khapula to finish her high school degree and became the first female from Hushe with a high school diploma.
Just like Mary, Shakeela had to travel to receive training in maternal healthcare and midwifery. She completed her education in Lahore and then returned to Baltistan to see if she could help reduce the number of maternal deaths and pregnancy complications that plagued the women in these rural areas.
While Mary had a horse to ride over the difficult mountain roads in Kentucky, Shakeela often walks on foot for many miles to reach her patients when they can’t make it to her clinic. So far, Shakeela has been successful in changing the odds of survival for new mothers and their children. In her first eight months as a midwife she delivered 51 babies. While 10 of those deliveries were complicated, all of her patients survived.
While both Mary and Shakeela were the first women to pioneer maternal medical help to their respective remote mothers. They became the inspiration for other women to get an education and join the cause. Thanks to women like them and access to education, maternal mortality rates continue to decline. As more women become trained as nurses and mid-wives and gain access to quality health care facilities and tools, infant mortality may someday reach the same level as most developed countries.
It took strong nerves, determination, and most of all, access to quality education for these pioneering women to solve such a deadly problem. Mary Breckinridge and Shakeela are a testament to the importance of women’s education, especially now.
Today, more than ever, we will miss out on the important contributions of women and girls in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan if we don’t help them access education. With the populations of these countries averaging just 22 years old, our future peacemakers and leaders are at stake.
It is a pivotal time for girls’ education the world over. The education revolution has begun and we can’t afford to leave anyone behind. If educating girls and women is important to you, please stand with us on International Women’s Day and sign the petition to create more educational opportunities for women.
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