Working the Afghan frontline: Three women tell their story

‘When life gets tough I close my eyes and imagine the calm views from Dingle’


Three Irish women working with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Afghanistan will celebrate International Women’s Day in a conflict zone.

Nurse Aoife Ní Mhurchú, from Waterfall, Co Cork, has learned that bad roads, insecurity and cultural barriers stop many Afghan women getting help when they are victims of gender-based violence.

Specially trained in sexual and gender-based violence, Ní Mhurchú arrived in Afghanistan in October after working with survivors of sexual violence with Médicins Sans Frontières in Papua New Guinea.

She now finds herself in daily contact with women who have no healthcare in the mountainous Khost province in eastern Afghanistan. These women are often forced to hide their experiences of sexual violence because of stigma and shame.

“Gender-based violence is viewed as dishonourable, sexual violence in particular, and can result in the survivor being blamed and perceived as unmarriageable,” she told The Irish Times. “Sometimes they can be forced to marry the perpetrator to avoid stigma and shame for the entire family. In the worst cases, a survivor of sexual violence can be killed to restore honour to the family.”

Ní Mhurchú travels throughout the province, where medical treatment is subject to male approval and treatment of women by male doctors is “largely unaccepted”.

Often, she longs for her yoga mat or to be “running free with my friends from Marathon Club Ireland” but says the “warmth and hospitality” of the Afghan people, who have suffered from decades of war and loss, is “remarkable”.

Dr Eve Bruce, Co Kerry 

Last week Dr Eve Bruce was driving along the Dingle peninsula with her groceries bouncing around the back seat of her car. This week she is treating severely burned women and children in Helmand in Afghanistan.

It’s Bruce’s second tour as a surgeon and consultant in Afghanistan, having previously served in Gaza and Somalia.

Born in the US, Bruce spent years as a plastic surgeon in Baltimore, Maryland. In 2010, she moved to Co Kerry where her husband is based and, soon after, began volunteering abroad.

Giving birth poses huge risks for Afghani women, she says, with statistics on maternal deaths from 2010 showing the rate (400 per 100,000 births) 50 times the rate in Ireland.

Epileptic women hide their fits for fear of being rejected. Many of these women end up in hospital with severe burns after falling into cooking fires during fits. “If they’re unmarried they’re afraid they won’t get chosen for marriage and if they are married, they’re afraid their husbands will leave them,” Bruce says.

Life in a conflict zone is “scary” but her grown-up children and husband are supportive. When life gets tough she closes her eyes and imagines the “calm and beautiful” view from her bedroom window in Dingle.

Jane-Ann Mc Kenna, head of mission with Médicins Sans Frontières in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photograph: Pau/MSF
Jane-Ann Mc Kenna, head of mission with Médicins Sans Frontières in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photograph: Pau/MSF

Jane-Ann McKenna, Dublin

Jane-Ann McKenna worked in banking in Dublin before deciding a life change was needed and joining MSF. Three years in Darfur followed, along with projects in Sri Lanka, Kurdistan and the Central African Republic.

Later, she returned to Ireland to run MSF’s Dublin office but in January she boarded a plane to Kabul to begin her new job as MSF’s head of mission in the Afghan capital.

She says Afghanistan “is a fascinating place” but it takes time to adjust to “different social norms”.

“I have to be covered all the time, make sure the top I’m wearing goes beyond my knees, always wear a headscarf outside my house and not shake a man’s hand,” she says.

McKenna is working to improve maternity care, which she say is “extremely challenging”. In Khost province, for example, the local hospital handles 100 deliveries a day but has just 68 beds .

McKenna loves her work, but hates being so far from the people she loves. She does not see her nieces and nephew as much as she would like as they grown up.

“I’ll have to miss a good friend’s wedding in a couple of months. That’s the thing, you miss the really big occasions,” she said.