IN a small village in Sierra Leone, 15-year-old Zainab was 43 weeks pregnant with no way to give birth naturally.
The closest maternity clinic is 125km away, a journey she would have to take by foot.
But with the help of the Aminata Maternal Foundation, young Zainab was driven to the Aberdeen Women’s Centre in Freetown and safely delivered her baby via a caesarean section.
This November, founder of the Aminata Maternal Foundation, Aminata Conteh-Biger, is calling all Australians to take part in the AMF Walking Challenge for young girls like Zainab.
“We are walking for three weeks and we’re doing 6km every day to accomplish 125km,” said Aminata.
“We are raising money to pay for caesarean for girls like Zainab and so we ask people to walk and share her story.”
The funds raised help the Aberdeen Women’s Centre provide critical support for women in Sierra Leone.
Last year they raised $63,000 funding 126 caesarean operations.
“All the services that we provide are completely free,” said Aminata.
“So if we don’t raise these funds, we can’t run the hospital.”
Aminata’s own near-death experience giving birth was the catalyst for starting the foundation to support women in her home country.
“In 2012 I went to the hospital… all of a sudden it went to a huge complication as they had not checked the weight of my baby,” she said.
“Sarafina [her daughter] was five kilos and by the time they knew that there was a problem it was too late for me to do a caesarean.
“We had seven doctors in the room to make sure that we survived, and in Sierra Leone, you have less than ten obstetricians in the whole country.
“There is no way I would have survived [in Sierra Leone] and if I survived, she would have died.”
This realisation compelled Aminata to investigate maternal health in her home country.
“I just started Googling and I saw all these horror stories and I realised that my country has the highest maternal mortality rates in the world,” she said.
“No mother or child should die because of poverty, it shouldn’t be acceptable and we need to fix that.”
Women in Sierra Leone have a 1 in 17 chance of dying while having a baby, about 500 times more than in Australia.
Head of the Medical Unit at Médecins Sans Frontières, Dr Claire Fotheringham, says many maternal related deaths in Sierra Leone are due to the delays in accessing care.
“The first delay is the time it takes in recognising that there’s a problem,” she said.
“The second delay is from the time that you recognise that there’s problem to the point where you actually get to a healthcare facility.”
This factor is particularly problematic for women in rural areas who are a long way from professional health facilities.
“And then we talk about a third delay, which is the delay once you actually reach a health care facility,” Dr Fotheringham said.
“In Sierra Leone, there are not sufficient nurses, midwives, doctors, gynaecologists or obstetricians.”
The World Health Organisation recommends a threshold of 23 skilled healthcare professionals per 10,000 citizens, with Sierra Leone well below at just two per 10,000.
Some of the leading causes of maternal mortality in Sierra Leone include excessive bleeding, obstructed labour and complications from infection.
Most of these deaths are preventable if treated timely by skilled health care professionals.
“That is the tragedy of the lack of access to care, that you would have this whole system of things go wrong,” said Dr Fotheringham.
Dr Fotheringham stresses the importance of training local Sierra Leoneans in providing maternal healthcare.
“As international staff you might go for three, six, maybe even 12 months, but in the life of a country that is not that long,” she said.
“You want to kind of balance it so that you’re not just providing care to people, but you’re also giving back in terms of making sure that there will be more people that have been trained.
“So you’re helping to support a system to get to the point where it won’t need a humanitarian organisation to come in, I think I think that’s the long term goal.”
Empowering local Sierra Leonean women with education and skills is something Aminata is very passionate about.
“I want to give somebody a tool for them to build their life, because they will take that into village and teach others,” she said.
Ninety-six per cent of the staff employed at the Aberdeen Women’s Centre are Sierra Leonean.
“I want people to go and train the women, leave their skills with the women and then walk away.”
Essentially, Aminata wants pregnancy and motherhood to be a joyful experience for women in her country.
“One thing that you look forward to is to hold that baby, you look forward to seeing their face,” she said.
“And that’s pure joy and that’s what every mother deserves.”
Donations can be made at amfwalkingchallenge2021.raisely.com
Jessica Roberts is a Masters of Journalism and International Relations student at Monash University. She is interested in advocating for women’s empowerment, amplifying the voices of marginalised communities and creating a society more inclusive and welcoming of minority groups. Jessica is passionate about writing stories that help make a difference.