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The birth of hope

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"Some people put lipstick on the navel because they think that it will help the baby's lips turn red," says Kuchi, a fair-skinned woman with a patrician air and elegantly applied makeup.

"Don't put anything on the navel," she advises the women. Another important point: If the mother must give birth by Caesarean section, do not follow the conventional wisdom, which holds that she should not be fed for three days afterward.

Although it may sound like common sense, much of Kuchi's information is a revelation to these women.

Many still follow the popular practice that a woman should not eat when she is getting close to her due date - and subsequently gets weaker when she needs her strength.

Others believe that a newborn baby should be kept from the mother for at least a day, and should not be fed anything other than tea and sugar in the first days of its life.

Nearly half of Afghan women of childbearing age who die each year do so as a result of complications in pregnancy or childbirth. A motherless newborn has only a 1 in 4 four chance of survival. Only 7 percent of women who die during or after labor gave birth with the help of a skilled attendant, according to a joint study last year by UNICEF and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Most of the deaths, the study found, were preventable.

The numbers add up to this: Motherhood, society's most important job for more than half of the population of Afghanistan, is also its most perilous.

Two years after the fall of the Taliban, which ordered women to stay home - and made it almost impossible for Kuchi to get out to do her work - improving training for midwives is considered by international health advocates to be part of Afghanistan's reconstruction plan.

Heathcare often inaccessible
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