In a small village encircled by velvety white snow-topped mountains in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province, Aziza Rahimi mourns the baby she lost last year after a harrowing birth with no medical care.

“It was too hard for me when I lost my baby. As a mother, I nurtured the baby in my womb for nine months but then I lost him. It is too painful,” said Rahimi, 35.

The village’s rugged and remote beauty in Bamiyan’s Foladi valley comes with deadly barriers for pregnant mothers.

However, a potentially lifesaving improvement is on the way. Rahimi’s village is one of several around Bamiyan that have sent 40 young women to train for two years as midwives in the provincial capital, after which they will return home.

Isolation can become a death sentence in any difficult birth, doctors and aid workers say, contributing to Afghanistan’s extremely high maternal and infant mortality rates, among the worst in the world.

The United Nations estimates an Afghan woman dies every two hours during pregnancy or childbirth, making Afghanistan’s maternal mortality rate the highest in Asia.

The trainee midwife programme has been spearheaded by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) with the Watan Social and Technical Services Association, a local charity. They hope to expand the programme to other provinces.

Since taking over in 2021, Taliban authorities have barred women from universities and most charity jobs, but they have made exemptions in the healthcare sector and the UNHCR says local health authorities support the project.