Diplomacy graduate establishes a lifeline for Afghan women

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Just before Christmas in 2008, Michelle Johnson experienced a life-changing moment.

While serving as a U.S. Army sergeant in southeastern Afghanistan, Johnson, a 2008 graduate of Norwich University's Master of Arts in Diplomacy program, helped save the life of a 13-year-old girl who was carrying a stillborn baby.

The Afghan teenager was brought to Johnson's Army base in grave condition. She had been in labor for days and the local midwives were ill equipped to help her. While there was a male medic at the base, rural Afghan custom does not allow women to receive medical treatment from men. As a result, the Army medic walked Johnson–whose only medical training was basic first aid–and two other female soldiers through the necessary steps to extract the baby and save the mother's life.

"I don't know her name. I don't know anything about her, but that girl changed my life," said Johnson.

Sparked by this experience, Johnson began volunteering at the women's clinic near her base in Paktika Province, working to bring in medical supplies and support. When her time in the Army was finished, Johnson knew this was her life's calling.

Today, she runs the Afghanistan Midwifery Project, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization she founded to provide midwife training, health education classes and medical supplies for women in Afghanistan.

"The girl that we saved - her case was not unusual," said Johnson, explaining that many midwives in these rural areas are not well trained and the clinics have limited medical supplies. Some women cannot even get to a clinic and only have access to a village healer for treatment, she said. This is where her organization hopes to make a difference.

Johnson's goal with the Afghanistan Midwifery Project is to "one day make Afghanistan a place where, even in remote villages, women have access to medical treatment and aren't afraid to seek medical care due to social stigmas."

To achieve that goal, Johnson has partnered with the Afghan Women's Education Center (AWEC), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) run by women in Kabul that provides widows and orphans with vocational education and literacy training. AWEC is opening a new model center in Kabul in May, where Johnson's group will run a midwife training center.

She hopes to bring women from all over Afghanistan to Kabul for training. Those women will return to their regions and train other women to become midwives. "This way, pregnant women in the rural areas will have a qualified medical professional to go to," said Johnson.

Reaching such lofty goals in a traditional, male-led and war-torn society is no easy task. But Johnson has the perfect background to tackle these issues, said Anna Hacker, a fellow American who works with AWEC and has raised nearly all the funds for the Kabul center.

"Michelle's training in the Army and in the Norwich diplomacy program gives her the structure she needs for her humanitarian efforts, while her on-the-ground experience in the field allowed her to see the need in Afghanistan firsthand," said Hacker. "Plus, her youth and idealism are key."

For Johnson, the Afghanistan Midwifery Project is a natural extension of her planned career path.

"I always wanted to serve my country in one way or another, and I figured after the military that I would work for some type of NGO or government agency," she said. "I picked Norwich's diplomacy program because I knew it would give me the education I needed to enter these fields. It was a great stepping stone."

She has had to start small - Johnson retains her full-time job as an information security officer for The PrivateBank, and has tapped family and friends to help her get the Afghanistan Midwifery Project off the ground. Her sister Danielle, for example, is the project's bookkeeper and webmaster; her best friend Amy functions as the fundraising and volunteer guru. Getting help with these activities allows Johnson to focus on the big-picture initiatives like securing certified midwife trainers for the centers and enlisting the support of other NGOs to expand the program outside Kabul.

"It's hectic and logistically challenging to work on the Afghan time schedule. I'm often making calls at 2 a.m. here in Chicago, but it is all worth it," she said.

"I have seen what the Afghan women go through. If I can help them get a profession and they, in turn, can go back to their villages and help other women–that is the best feeling in the world."