Saving Sierra Leone’s Mothers: A Community’s Journey to Ending Maternal and Child Death

Saving Sierra Leone’s Mothers: A Community’s Journey to Ending Maternal and Child Death


By: Congresswoman Norma Torres (D-CA-35)

Amienata is a 22-year-old young woman who was married off as a teen and is already a mother to four children. Like the 15 million girls affected by child marriage annually, she had to drop out of school to take care of her growing family. I met Amienata during a recent trip to Sierra Leone with the international poverty-fighting organization CARE. I learned how she struggled, like many Sierra Leonean families, to make ends meet on less than $1 a day. And her family’s conservative religious beliefs made it difficult for her to exercise her right to decide if and when she’d start her family, or how many children she and her husband would have. But she was one of the lucky ones.

Congresswoman Norma Torres in Sierra Leone

Girls who marry young are more likely to face the negative health consequences resulting from early pregnancy and childbirth. In Sierra Leone, more than 1,360 women will die out of every 100,000 who give birth – the highest rate of maternal deaths in the world. At present, approximately 21 babies will die there each day before reaching their first month, and the average woman won’t live to celebrate her 53rd birthday. Many of these deaths are due to entirely preventable causes like the lack of access to health services, either due to cost, distance, or entrenched societal barriers that continue to prevent them from exercising their right to decide the timing and spacing of their births or the size of the family they wish to have. As a mother, I was outraged after hearing these figures and meeting the incredibly strong and resilient women and mothers like Amienata.

The 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak devastated Sierra Leone and several countries throughout West Africa, further straining the access and availability of maternal health care. I could have easily walked away from this experience completely unsure of if or how a path towards improved maternal health was even possible. But then I met Mamasu and Uma.

A woman in Sierra LeoneThese two extraordinary nurses are single-handedly staffing and managing a rural health clinic in the Makeni district of Sierra Leone, serving a population of more than 4,500 individuals from 16 surrounding villages. Their passion, drive, and remarkable sense of humor gave me hope and surely inspires hope in the hundreds of young women, mothers, and families who are better off because of their efforts and outreach. Each day, these women go door-to-door providing health consultations and information on a variety of maternal and child health topics, including the importance of birth spacing and the healthy timing of pregnancies.

Mamasu and Uma have received capacity-building training from organizations like CARE to strengthen their ability to help women safely give birth, and their health clinic has received several significant infrastructure improvements funded by Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health and Sanitation, the U.S. government, and other bilateral donors. Since these two nurses began working at the clinic just a few years ago, they have not witnessed a single preventable maternal death. And through their community outreach, more women – including young mothers like Amienata – have been able to access health information on the contraceptive methods available and exercise their reproductive rights.

CARE works with mothers in Sierra Leone

Unfortunately, the need for family planning remains high in Sierra Leone and elsewhere in many developing countries around the globe. It is a challenge even in communities here in the United States. This makes me also reflect on other regions and countries around the globe that I have travelled to and hold dear to my heart – like Guatemala, which is home to the highest rate of maternal deaths in all of Latin America and where access to family planning remains a challenge for the country’s most vulnerable women and communities.

But I have also seen that sustainable and impactful solutions do exist, and many are supported by critical U.S. investments – investments made possible by American tax payer dollars that save the lives of millions globally each year.

Young mothers in Sierra LeoneToday, as we recognize World Contraception Day, we must remember that access to timely and quality maternal and reproductive health is a fundamental human right. That said, we must lift barriers to women accessing comprehensive health services – barriers often made more significant and complicated by misguided policies such as reinstatement of the Mexico City policy also known as the “Global Gag Rule,” which places harmful restrictions on health providers receiving U.S. assistance. We have seen the impact of this policy during previous administrations, and we know it results in reduced access to life-saving family planning services and the closure or scale-back of health clinics serving some of the most vulnerable populations, particularly women and children.

Women, young adults, and families – in Sierra Leone, throughout the region, and globally – deserve the ability to safely time and space their pregnancies. The unwavering commitment of the women and health workers like Mamasu and Uma to improve maternal and child health outcomes of the people in their country is more important now than ever. Through our leadership and robust U.S. foreign assistance, I hope we can continue to support their work and all efforts that improve women’s access to vital health services and information and empower the health workers who make such interventions possible.

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