The former head of Canada’s aid program in Afghanistan has expressed concern that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s religious beliefs are hampering humanitarian efforts.
Speaking to the Straight from Kabul, Nipa Banerjee noted that Harper is a born-again Christian, and she argued that his religious beliefs could be adversely affecting the Canadian International Development Agency’s efforts to help Afghan women.
“It has been said that reproductive health would not be a part of the government and CIDA’s aid programs,” said Banerjee, who led CIDA’s mission in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2006. “And the reproductive-health issue is a major problem in the context of Afghanistan because the maternal mortality rate is very high.”
A 2009 United Nations release stated that if you were a woman giving birth in Afghanistan that year, you had a one in eight chance of dying. The following year, a Lancet report on maternal health found that a primary factor in the global decline in maternal deaths in recent decades is decreasing fertility rates.
“It is important to make contraception available, whereas our government’s policy is not to include reproductive health in any kind of maternal-health program,” Banerjee said. “That I consider to be a major drawback.”
Banerjee, who worked for CIDA for more than three decades, isn’t the first to suggest that the religious beliefs of senior Conservative politicians could be affecting Canadian foreign policy. In her book The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada, veteran journalist Marci McDonald argued that the Harper government’s unwavering support for Israel is a manifestation of evangelical “dispensationalist” theology.
McDonald also wrote that upon moving to Ottawa in 2003, Harper began attending the East Gate Alliance Church, successfully muting his evangelical ties until outed almost three years later by a correspondent for a Christian news service.
Banerjee’s remarks come on the heels of the federal government declaring on November 16 four new “themes” that will define Canada’s role in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2014. One of those themes, helping children and youth, will include assisting the Afghan government in “improving maternal, newborn and child health”, a backgrounder states.
“We have three paths that we’re going to follow: that’s nutrition, diseases and illnesses, and health-systems strengthening,” Geetanjalee Khosla, a senior development officer for CIDA, told the Straight. “It is too early for us to say right now what exactly our programming is going to look like. But those are the paths that we’re headed towards.”
When pressed on whether the new focus on maternal health would include family-planning components such as contraception, Khosla responded, “I don’t think the doors are closed.”
Speaking to the Straight from Ottawa, John Rafferty, NDP critic for international cooperation and CIDA, recalled remarks that U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton made in Canada in March of this year.
“You cannot have maternal health without reproductive health, and reproductive health includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortions,” Clinton told a meeting of G8 delegates.
Rafferty noted that those comments were made at a time when the Conservative government was refusing to talk about birth control and foreign aid. Since then, Rafferty suggested, the Harper government may have softened its position.
“I suspect that the Conservatives see the wisdom of providing a full spectrum of family-planning services but will not be making any big announcements about it,” Rafferty said. “And I think the reason they would be quiet about it is that they don’t want to stir up their base.”
Other groups on the ground in Afghanistan aren’t so guarded. In an e-mail to the Straight, Kieran Green, a spokesperson for CARE Canada, wrote that his development organization’s programs include providing oral contraceptives and condoms.
“There is actually high demand for condoms from the men in the Kabul communities where the program runs,” he emphasized.
In an earlier telephone call, Green said that maternal mortality rates in Afghanistan are so high that strategies to bring the numbers down must be comprehensive.
“The leading cause of death in Afghanistan is not bombs; it is not bullets—it is pregnancy,” he said.
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