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"Only one survived"... At a crossroads for women in Sierra Leone

By Lucy Freeman form the Africa Programme, Amnesty International,

On Tuesday, we launched our new report on maternal health care in Sierra Leone.

View report here At a Crossroads: Sierra Leone's Free Health Care Policy.  At the launch, the Ministry of Health committed themselves to implementing the recommendations contained in the report.

The report describes how pregnant women and girls in Sierra Leone continue to face serious challenges in accessing drugs and medical care that are crucial to ensure safe pregnancy and childbirth.

The government launched a major initiative in April 2010 to provide free care to pregnant women and girls. However, much remains to be done. The healthcare system remains dysfunctional in many respects. Disparities persist between rural and urban maternal health services; the quality of care is frequently substandard, and many women continue to pay for essential drugs, despite the free care policy.

Monitoring and accountability are essential elements for the enjoyment of right to health and a critical shortcoming within Sierra Leone’s healthcare system is the absence of any effective monitoring and accountability systems, without which reforms cannot succeed.

Amnesty International is calling on the Sierra Leone government to strengthen and establish systems of monitoring and accountability to ensure healthcare interventions are accessible to women and girls, and to guarantee their access to effective remedies for violations of their human rights.

The report was launched in the centre of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Over 100 people attended, journalists, government agencies including the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, the Anti-Corruption Commission, and several international and national non-governmental organizations. Rajat Khosla, Amnesty International’s Health Policy Coordinator, presented the findings of the report and Dr Doah, the Chief Medical Officer, spoke on behalf of the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. Dr Doah agreed with many issues in the report but also stressed that successes have already been achieved. Finally, he said that the ministry is appreciative of the report and committed himself to implementing the recommendations of the report.

The Human Rights Commission also spoke, commending Amnesty International on the report and committing to continue to hold the government to account for their international human rights obligations.

This was followed by a skit by Amnesty International Sierra Leone’s performance group, who used comedy to look at the experience of people trying to access free health care under the Free Health Care System. Performed in Creole, the drama sketches were met with much laughter from the audience.

Finally, the launch ended with a performance by Amnesty International’s Ambassadors with their new song about maternal mortality in Sierra Leone. You can listen to their last song here and the new song will be available to download soon.

On Monday we co-hosted a roundtable on maternal health and accountability with the Ministry of Health and the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone. The workshop looked at how to further develop the human rights elements of maternal health in Sierra Leone, with a particular focus on monitoring and accountability.  For the rest of the week, we will be meeting key stakeholders in the government and civil society to further discuss the findings in the report.

There remains a lot to be done. Last Saturday, a close friend of the director of Amnesty International Sierra Leone, bled to death in hospital, she was 7 months pregnant.  According to her family, 3 women were in the maternity ward that day. Only 1 survived.

Over the next 2 years, Amnesty International will continue to campaign for the right to maternal health in Sierra Leone, we will work with civil society and directly with communities and rights holders in Sierra Leone to build their capacity to claim their own rights and gain access to the facilities which the government and their development partners are seeking to improve.