The rain came down like iron rods for hours.
Not an auspicious start for the launch of Amnesty International’s campaign to end maternal mortality in Sierra Leone. However, by early afternoon, the sun was beginning to peep through the dark grey clouds and steam rose from Freetown’s roads, as the puddles dried.
By 4pm, thousands of Sierra Leoneans, many dressed in yellow t-shirts bearing the “End Maternal Mortality in Sierra Leone” slogan had gathered at Bishop Johnson Memorial School ground. Most of the crowd were women and girls, and many were visibly pregnant.
The muddy ground did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd who jostled for the best view of Amnesty International’s Campaign Caravan – an enormous yellow truck whose side peeled away to reveal an impressive stage.
The director of Amnesty International section in Sierra Leone, Brima Sheriff, kicked off the afternoon’s festivities. He explained that Amnesty International will campaign for the next six years to reduce maternal deaths in the country.
He urged those present to sign a petition to the government demanding improved maternal healthcare. One in eight Sierra Leonean women die during pregnancy and childbirth, one of the highest rates in the world.
Amnesty International’s Secretary General took to the stage next. “Having a baby should be a very happy occasion,” said Irene Khan. “But, in so many houses it becomes a very sad occasion.”
She asked her 4,000 strong audience: “How many of you know someone who died giving birth?” A staggering number of hands shot into the air.
“Is this inevitable?” she asked the crowd. “No. It can be prevented. Women must not die giving birth.
“That’s why we’re here. That’s why you’re here. We want all women to have free healthcare,” she said to rapturous applause.
The crowd was entertained by some of Sierra Leone’s top artists, who performed a song lamenting the preventable deaths of women and girls during pregnancy and childbirth.
The artists were joined by Nollywood actress Omotola Jakande Ekeinde, who sang and danced on stage as the excited crowd surged forward to take photos and shout their messages to her. Omotola, who is a major movie star in West Africa, has been helping Amnesty International raise awareness in the region on maternal mortality as a human rights issue.
Next came a play by a talented local theatre group who graphically portrayed the consequences of leaving medical assistance too late. In Sierra Leone, many women are unable to access lifesaving medical care because their healthcare needs are not prioritized and the family fears the cost of hospital treatment.
But amid the merrymaking, songs and dancing, there’s proof that Amnesty International’s message was heard and endorsed by the people of Freetown.
Hawa Mansarey, 27, said that her sister-in-law died giving birth.
“No child should have to grow up motherless,” she said. “That is why I am here.”
Hawa is expecting her third baby in December. Though she says she will go to the hospital to give birth, many families don’t have the resources.
“The treatment is supposed to be free but that is not the reality. You must pay for your medicine and so many don’t have the money so they die.”
Musa Alhaji Osman Bah, 22, is a student at Freetown’s University.
“It’s my generation who will marry next,” he says. “This campaign is very important to educate us to take our women to hospital to give birth. We are the next ones to get wives and we don’t want to lose them. If we can eradicate this problem it will really help us and add to the development of our country.”
Amnesty International’s Caravan to End Maternal Mortality will tour the country raising awareness of maternal deaths as a human rights issue within Sierra Leone and demanding improved healthcare services from the government. After a colourful launch in Freetown, the Caravan will continue to the towns of Kabala and Kambia and Bo and Kenema.
Amnesty International believes maternal mortality is a human rights issue. Every women has the right to health, and the right to life. In order to live in dignity, these rights must be respected.