Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Just back from the official launch of the Sierra Leone Maternal Mortality report (pdf). Amnesty launched the report at a school’s grounds near Princess Christian Maternity Hospital in Freetown.
There were several thousand people there for the launch as a result of the outreach done by the Amnesty International section in Sierra Leone. AI Sierra Leone is led by Brima Sheriff, the director, and Violette Kawa, the chair of their board. Brima is a dynamic and articulate man who talks about human rights in Sierra Leone with passion and knowledge. AI Sierra Leone, with a staff of less than a dozen people, has been working night and day over the past few months getting ready for the launch of this report.
It was raining buckets this morning and last night. It’s the rainy season here. When we woke this morning everyone was nervous about launching in the torrential downpour and what that would mean for the turnout. But the skies cleared up and the sun even came out just in time for our launch at 4:30 p.m. when Violette brought the crowd to a roar by asking them, “Is it right for a woman to die because she is poor?”
Hundreds of children in their school uniforms along with their mothers and fathers attended the launch at Bishop Johnson Memorial School. Even the nurses and staff from the nearby hospital came out to support the call for ending maternal mortality. “Maternal mortality” — the words themselves seem to sanitize what is really happening – women dying as they become mothers.
Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty, asked the crowd, “How many of you know a woman who has died during child birth?” Almost all of the hands among the thousands went up. A part of Amnesty’s work here is to inform women and their communities that this does not have to be the case. We are talking to them about their rights and the obligations that their government has to provide safe and affordable health care.
Sierra Leone has signed and ratified the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which guarantee the right to the highest possible standard of health in general and the right to maternal health in particular, as well as protection against discrimination based on income. (The United States has not ratified the two conventions, although we hope the Obama administration will change this.)
The launch also included signers and a famous (really famous) Nigerian actress named Omotola (she does not need a last name here). Omotola was the star of today’s rally. The crowd went wild when she entered the grounds and it took more than a dozen police officers to safely bring her to the stage. Omotola, looking lovely in her bright yellow Amnesty shirt, spoke with passion about the right of women to have safe childbirth and about women not being denied care because they are poor. The crowd went crazy.
She was followed by a theater performance group that played out a woman’s trials of giving birth here and
her eventual death because her husband could not scramble together the money demanded by the hospital for her care. The enthusiasm and energy of the crowd was exhilarating and made me feel that ending maternal mortality here was not only possible, but within reach.
Tomorrow, we leave with the caravan of musicians, performers and Omotola, along with Amnesty directors from several sections, for Makeni, which is in the Bombali region northeast of Freetown. The group in this caravan will talk about maternal mortality and encourage the people of Sierra Leone to demand better care from their government. It will travel around the country for the next two weeks. It’s the caravan of life; a reminder to women and their families that dying during child birth is not inevitable and can be prevented. We need the government to make this issue a priority. There needs to be the political will to ensure women will not die from preventable causes.