Dec. 14, 2009
Jeremy Craig, 404-413-1357
For women under the reign of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the lack of basic access to health care was deadly.
Zakia Maroof recounts that the severe lack of health care, education and a segregation by gender led to deaths that were fully preventable.
A master’s student and Fulbright scholar at Georgia State’s Institute of Public Health, Maroof, 35, has lived through the Soviet occupation of her country, years of civil war and times of Taliban oppression.
Through it all, she remains strongly determined to improve the health of women and children.
“Women, as mothers and main caregivers will contribute a lot if they are enabled, educated and empowered,” she said. “These are all things that I have learned at Georgia State, which I will take home, and I will do my best to work very hard to those goals.”
Now, she will take the lessons she has learned at GSU about public health back to help rebuild her country’s capacity to care for the vulnerable.
In the waning years of the Soviet occupation, she attended medical school. After Soviet withdrawal, the country descended into civil war, and she eventually moved from the capital of Kabul to the northern part of the country where her family lived, and where she continued her education.
She worked in a gynecology and obstetrics ward when the Taliban took control of the country. Most women and girls were forbidden from going to school or moving around without being escorted by a male family member. Excluding physicians, women could not work. Women could only see female doctors, of which Maroof was one of very, very few.
It was difficult to practice medicine, and in complicated cases, Maroof and the remaining female physicians needed to consult with specialists — who were all male. By the time specialists could be consulted, the patients could possibly die.
She made the decision to leave the hospital and to become focused on public health, even though she was making a significant financial contribution to her family.
“I couldn’t see women dying in front of my eyes when I can’t do anything,” Maroof said.
After several years, she returned to Kabul for more training. There, she joined a French non-governmental organization, Fight Against Hunger — one of the only NGOs that hired women — which works to teach mothers and children about health, as well as to train midwives, doctors and nurses.
She continued to observe a health crisis among women that was preventable. Those who needed to see a gynecologist came at late stages of their problems, and many came suffering postpartum hemorrhages — a leading cause of death in Afghanistan.
“I asked why they came so late, and they said that they had problems with transportation and money, but the most shocking thing was that they were waiting for permission to go, or have a man take them to a hospital,” she said.
In the basement of the NGO’s office was something that Maroof had never learned how to use — a computer. Although off limits to women, Maroof would sneak an opportunity to work on the computer with the help of a guard, who would warn her when someone passed by on the street. It opened her eyes to the wider world, and would become important to her later training.
The Taliban would be displaced after the U.S. invasion in early 2000s. Maroof then had greater opportunities for education and travel, applying as one of more than a thousand Fulbright applicants from Afghanistan. Thirty-four were selected, and she headed to the U.S., and GSU, in 2008.
This fall, Georgia State enrolled 28 of Fulbright fellows. More than 1,800 new Fulbright fellows enter academic programs in the U.S. each year.
Her decision to attend the university was not an easy one. She not only left her husband and children behind, but she faced criticism back home by those who did not see her decision as consistent with the role of women in Afghan culture.
“Her determination to improve the conditions in Afghanistan was so great that she tolerated these personal attacks in order to get the education that she needs to really make a difference,” said Michael Eriksen, director of the Institute of Public Health.
Maroof said she found her educational experiences in the United States, and particularly at Georgia State, completely different, yet exciting and eye-opening. The ability to ask questions and interact with professors, rather than just absorbing lectures, was new.
She also experienced going to a library for the first time to research academic articles — something she never did during her medical education. Additionally, she had an opportunity to meet and learn from other American and international students.
“It was great to meet other international students, and to talk about our own experience and different places in the world, as a way of mutually exchanging ideas and experiences,” Maroof said. “My American classmates were very open as well.”
The lessons learned at GSU will help her in her work back home, where there is much work to do. Women, she said, must become empowered and educated to take care of their own health. The health care infrastructure and capacity must be rebuilt.
“I think that I’ll return to Afghanistan more resourceful, with greater knowledge and a broader vision,” she said. “I hope to be able to translate what I’ve learned into something that will help rebuild my country.”
December will mark her last days at GSU, as she’s returning home before her spring 2010 graduation to continue her work with UNICEF. Because of the difficulty of returning to the U.S., she will defend her thesis — which examines the socioeconomic status of Afghan women and health outcomes for them and their children — using Skype, marking the Institute of Public Health’s first “virtual defense.”
“Decades of war have taught not only me, but all Afghans, to learn how to be adaptive with hard situations, and how to overcome,” she said.