Living with Ebola in Sierra Leone: “It feels like the whole country is in quarantine”

CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

By Solomon Sogbandi, Director of Amnesty International Sierra Leone.

Since the first cases of Ebola were reported in Mach, life in Sierra Leone has changed beyond recognition.

So far, the World Health Organization has confirmed more than 5,200 Ebola cases in Sierra Leone alone and more than 13,700 across the world. More than 4,500 people have died of the disease – 1,500 in my home country.

Friends abroad often ask me what life is like here at the moment.

I can only describe it as horrifying. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

African healthcare laid bare by Ebola epidemic

A street artist, Stephen Doe, paints an educational mural to inform people about the symptoms of the deadly Ebola virus in the Liberian capital Monrovia    ( DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

A street artist, Stephen Doe, paints an educational mural to inform people about the symptoms of the deadly Ebola virus in the Liberian capital Monrovia. ( DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

By Savio Carvalho, senior adviser on international development and human rights at Amnesty International.

Two years ago, I had the privilege of visiting Freetown and other parts of Sierra Leone where Amnesty International was training maternal health volunteers to monitor antenatal care. It was evident then that Sierra Leone’s health infrastructure was in a very poor state, undermined by years of war and lack of investment. But today, the outbreak of Ebola has meant that its struggling healthcare system, and others in neighboring African countries – particularly Liberia and Guinea – have been completely overwhelmed.

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Ex-Liberian President Who Brought "Blood Diamonds" Into the Public Consciousness, Found Guilty of War Crimes

Charles Taylor

Today, the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) in The Hague convicted Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, with aiding and abetting 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity – including murder, rape, sexual slavery and use of child soldiers – committed during Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war.

Set up jointly by the Government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations, the Special Court is  a “hybrid” or “mixed” tribunal, including both international and Sierra Leonean staff,  as well as  elements of both international and Sierra Leonean law.

Charles Taylor is the first former head of state to have been prosecuted in an international criminal court for crimes committed in Africa, and today’s conviction marks the first verdict for a head of state charged with international war crimes since the Nuremberg trials following World War II.

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Is Sierra Leone’s Free Healthcare Program for Pregnant Women and Children Working?

By Kim Lanegran, Amnesty USA Country Specialist for Sierra Leone

sierra leone mother and babyIt’s been a little over a year since the government of Sierra Leone launched its groundbreaking free healthcare program for children and pregnant women.

While we’re thrilled about the good news — more women now receive pre and post-natal health care, over 39,000 women delivered their babies in health care facilities, and many lives have been saved — there is still a lot to be done.

Amnesty International’s new report on the Free Health Policy finds that free adequate care is simply not being delivered.

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First Year of Sierra Leone’s Free Care Policy

By Kim Lanegran, Sierra Leone Country Specialist

Pregnant women at a maternity waiting house in Sierra Leone © AI

On April 27th, Sierra Leoneans celebrated two important anniversaries: 50 years of independence from Great Britain; one year of  free health care to children under five and pregnant and lactating women.

Since independence, Sierra Leone has struggled from crushing poverty, human rights atrocities and a decade of horrible civil war.  When the war ended in 2002, Sierra Leone faced many challenges, not the least of which was that it was among the very worst countries in the world to be a pregnant woman or a child.

Amnesty International played a pivotal role drawing attention to the human costs of inadequate maternal health care in Sierra Leone and helped Sierra Leoneans demand reforms from their government.  Amnesty’s work emphasizing that maternal health is a human right and that other human rights abuses, such as gender discrimination, exacerbate the failure of health care delivery was crucial.

This work continues in Sierra Leone, Africa and throughout the world. Join us in shining a light on maternal health this Mother’s Day.

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African Activists' Struggle to Improve Maternal Health

Activist Juliette Compaoré says the MDG summit will have an impact in Burkina Faso © Amnesty International

New UN statistics released last week show that world leaders are struggling to keep their promise of cutting the maternal mortality ratio by 75 per cent by 2015. For activists in Sierra Leone, the slow progress is no surprise.

Many people don’t understand that maternal health is a human rights issue and so many other factors contribute to these deaths. Discrimination, lack of facilities, domestic violence and poverty… if these underlying issues aren’t addressed, it will undermine the good work that is being done,” says Victor L Koroma, an activist based in the capital Freetown.

Koroma’s small organization, the Campaign for the Promotion of Health and Human Rights Activities, campaigned to abolish medical fees in Sierra Leone. In April, the government took the landmark step of introducing free healthcare for pregnant and breastfeeding women.

However, Koroma warned world leaders gathering this week in New York to discuss progress on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that more still needs to be done.

“We need to go beyond free healthcare because there are lots of problems. Many midwives are not properly trained and drugs and blood are not available. Nutrition is completely ignored. Drugs are unevenly distributed and there is discrimination – whether on the basis of tribe, gender, social status or political affiliation.

“World leaders, donors, the UN and the World Bank all need to do their bit if a country like Sierra Leone is to be saved from the ravages of pregnant women dying every day.”

Koroma paints a harrowing picture of the scale of the maternal health crisis facing MDG decision-makers.

“Sexual and gender-based violence is rampant; women and girls as young as five are being raped. Many then become infected with HIV. Yet the government does nothing. In the last year only two people have been sentenced for violence against women out of probably thousands of cases,” he says.

The UN statistics show an average annual decline of 2.3 per cent since 1990, falling way short of the 5.5 per cent decline needed to reach the 2015 target. Although a woman is no longer dying every minute, the new statistics show that one woman is still dying every minute and a half.

Severe discrimination and the low social status of women also fuel the high rate of maternal deaths in Sierra Leone, where women’s health needs are given low priority by their own families and community leaders.

Most maternal deaths in Sierra Leone take place in rural areas cut adrift from hospitals. Most women die in their homes. Some die on the way to hospital; in taxis, on motorbikes or on foot.
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Digging Deeper Into Naomi Campbell’s "Dirty Little Stones"

By Tom Turner, Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA

Did Naomi Campbell know who Charles Taylor was, before the then president of Liberia gave her a bag of rough diamonds? Did she immediately know that the “dirty little stones” in the bag were in fact diamonds? What did she do next? All of this seems rather far from the concerns of Amnesty International, and perhaps more suited to Entertainment Tonight or TMZ than to a serious news outlet.

As I conceded during an interview on WCCO News Radio 830 (Minneapolis), perhaps we should be grateful for the brief attention to the blood diamonds issue in 2010, which had almost disappeared from view since receiving vast attention in 2006, when the Hollywood film starring Leonardo Di Caprio was earning millions of dollars. In my view, that is not really the case. The film stressed the link between the precious stones and the violence they fueled, albeit in a formulaic manner.

This time, however, the brief news stories and video footage provided too little information to enable the listener or viewer to contextualize the Campbell-Taylor episode. Often, one had to read several paragraphs of celebrity “she said, she said” regarding Campbell, her former assistant, and Mia Farrow, before even learning that all this was taking place in an international courtroom in The Hague (Netherlands).

A diamond merchant shows his wares in Kenema, Sierra Leone. Despite its pledge to support the Kimberley Process and Clean Diamond Trade Act, the Diamond Industry has fallen short of implementing the necessary policies for self-regulation. © Chris Hondros/Getty Images.

Charles Taylor is alleged to have traded weapons for rough diamonds from Sierra Leone and in so doing, to have fueled the civil war in that country. During Sierra Leone’s civil war, approximately 75,000 civilians were killed. Over one-third of the population—two million people—was displaced. More than 5,000 children were recruited to fight in both government and opposition forces. Many civilians suffered amputated limbs.

Former President Taylor stands accused of unlawful killings, mutilations, rape, sexual slavery, the recruitment and use of child soldiers, abduction, and the use of forced labor by Sierra Leonean armed opposition groups, which he is alleged to have actively supported.

Amnesty International supported the Kimberley Process, by which diamonds would be certified conflict-free. It has called on the Kimberley Process to strengthen its commitment to protecting human rights and to improve the peer review mechanism. Amnesty continues to press the governments of Sierra Leone and Liberia to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in their countries. Justice must be done and must be seen to be done.

The diamond industry must be reminded that corporate impunity for past crimes relating to blood diamonds will not be tolerated. This is important, as a sign to the victims and the families that the crimes committed against them are not being forgotten. It is equally important as a warning to the people in the industry that we in the human rights community have our eyes on them and will not be as slow to react next time as we were in the case of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Tom Turner is Democratic Republic of Congo Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA. He is the author of The Congo Wars: Conflict, Myth and Reality (Zed Books, 2007).

Speaking Out for Maternal Health in Detroit

On April 17, Detroit hosted the second stop of the maternal health speakers tour. In this post, Reuben Metreger, a law student at Wayne State University and Amnesty International state legislative coordinator for Michigan, looks back on the event.

As I reflect on the Deadly Delivery Detroit event I am reminded of what long time Detroit co-group 78 leader and new area coordinator Ken Grunow said. In Detroit we will all need to become midwives and mid-husbands to deliver the rebirth of our city. Amnesty International leaders from around the world gave us a good first push. As we begin to demand dignity and take on poverty it seems clear that a common problem is inequality for women and minority groups and that it is people power, not technology that will make it happen.

As if on cue the technology failed us. The sound system went out, but our leaders did not skip a beat. They were able to communicate the old fashioned way, from the heart.

Larry Cox, executive director of AIUSA, told us that although we are the richest country in the world, we still rank behind forty other countries in terms of lifetime risk of dying in pregnancy or childbirth.

Silvia Rosario Loli Espinoza, executive director of AI Peru, told us through her interpreter that although her country is considered a middle income country, they are the third worst in Latin America when it comes to maternal mortality. Unfortunately, there is still a lack of resources and women are not even provided with basic needs like food and transportation. Other problems have to do with discrimination against indigenous people and women in the country which contribute to poor outcomes. She described a technique called vertical delivery where women give birth while standing; indigenous women often prefer vertical delivery, but too many Peruvian health professionals are unable to facilitate the technique, or even actively discourage it.

Yves Boukari Traore, executive director of AI Burkina Faso, told us that his country is one of the economically poorest in the world. Poverty is a leading cause of maternal mortality, yet the problem is more than a lack of resources — it is a lack of will. We watched an inspiring video of women on the Amnesty International caravan delivering the message that maternal mortality is a serious problem and that when the community joins together to demand dignity, the government will have to respond.

The most hopeful news of the day came from Brima Abdulai Sheriff, executive director of AI Sierra Leone. Although he told us that Sierra Leone facing many of the same challenges as Burkina Faso, his government has announced that health care will be provided free to pregnant women in his country!

It was inspiring to get to see first-hand Amnesty activists from around the world and to recognize that our problems have much in common. We all need to come together to join Amnesty International and demand dignity for all people! As Ken said, we all need to help support pregnant women to ensure that birth is a joyous occasion that we can all celebrate.

Speaking Out for Maternal Health in San Francisco

This post is by Cecilia Lipp, AIUSA San Francisco Organizing City Activist Leader.

L-R: Larry Cox of Amnesty International USA, Maddy Oden of the Tatia Oden French Memorial Foundation, and Yves Boukari Traore of Amnesty International Burkina Faso

L-R: Larry Cox of Amnesty International USA, Maddy Oden of the Tatia Oden French Memorial Foundation, and Yves Boukari Traore of Amnesty International Burkina Faso

San Francisco hosted AIUSA’s maternal health speakers tour at the San Francisco Public Library Wednesday night. Amnesty International executive directors from Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Peru and the United States presented the findings of AI’s reports on maternal health in their respective countries, and outlined their campaigns to make every birth safe.

The panel discussion, moderated by Diana Campoamor, president of Hispanics in Philanthropy, took us through from the international to the local level. The statistics at every level are shocking. But what stays with me most are the stories of individual women denied access to lifesaving health care.

L-R: Yves Boukari Traore of Amnesty International Burkina Faso, Brima Abdulai Sheriff of Amnesty International Sierra Leone, Sameer Dossani of Amnesty International USA, and Silvia Loli Espinoza of Amnesty International Peru

L-R: Yves Boukari Traore of Amnesty International Burkina Faso, Brima Abdulai Sheriff of Amnesty International Sierra Leone, Sameer Dossani of Amnesty International USA, and Silvia Loli Espinoza of Amnesty International Peru

Maddy Oden, founder of the Tatia Oden French Memorial Foundation, shared the intimate story of the loss of her daughter, Tatia, after an induced labor at a respected San Francisco Bay Area hospital. Tatia’s daughter Zorah passed away as well. Before speaking, Maddy lit a candle to honor the spirits of the women who have died while giving life.

In a room filled with midwives, local elected officials, our local human rights organizations and people who are all parents and children, it was so important for us to be brought back to the fact that the issue of maternal mortality is not just a question of abstract statistics or lofty human rights ideals. This is a concrete, flesh-and-blood issue that affects every person in the room, and the inspiration for this work lies in the fact that this is a crisis we can fight! These deaths, like Tatia’s, are unnecessary and preventable, especially in the United States, where geography and infrastructure do not pose a problem in the way that it might in rural Burkina Faso.

L: Silvia Loli Espinoza of Amnesty International Peru

L: Silvia Loli Espinoza of Amnesty International Peru

We looked at solutions in our community, such as the bill for single-payer health care in California championed by Senator Mark Leno, supported by partner organizations including OneCare California. We, as a community, can also look to support education solutions that the Tatia Oden French Foundation proposes including increasing women’s awareness of their rights within the health care system, including the right to refusal. It’s imperative for our community to ensure that all women get everything they need to be fully informed participants in their care.

This event was a call to action: to come together in solidarity with one another and protect the life of every woman in our global community who chooses to give birth. Let us make sure every woman knows her rights, let us hold the medical community accountable (not culpable, but responsible), let us support the practice of midwives and doulas to support women in birth, let us ensure that women are visited by doctors and community members before, during and after their birth.

L-R: Maddy Oden of the Tatia Oden French Memorial Foundation (hidden), Yves Boukari Traore of Amnesty International Burkina Faso, Brima Abdulai Sheriff of Amnesty International Sierra Leone

L-R: Maddy Oden of the Tatia Oden French Memorial Foundation (hidden), Yves Boukari Traore of Amnesty International Burkina Faso, Brima Abdulai Sheriff of Amnesty International Sierra Leone

We have our work cut out for us, but I became convinced this week that we can make this change in our community here in San Francisco. Could you do the same thing in your community? Will you work for a crucial national solution — an Office of Maternal Health? I will remember the life of Tatia Oden French and the other women just like her who die every day within the United States alone. Let us stand together in solidarity and transform this unnecessary and heartbreaking reality.

Maternal health is a human right. Motherhood and birth deserve dignity, so let us demand dignity for ourselves, our sisters, our daughters, our partners.

Women: The Smartest Investment

In an empowering speech on Friday, January 8, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated her commitment to women’s rights as human rights. Exactly 15 years since the UN’s International Conference on Population and Development was held in Cairo, Secretary Clinton praised the progress made in improving the health and lives of women and children around the world since this groundbreaking gathering.

This progress has included a marked increase in the use of modern contraceptives from less than 10% in the 1960s to 43% today; an encouraging increase in child survival rates; and an increase in female enrollment in schools. Despite this progress, Secretary Clinton rightly emphasized the crucial need for a continued commitment toward reaching the Conference’s goals by the target year, 2015.

Secretary Clinton cited alarming statistics: half the women in the developing world deliver their babies without access to crucial medical care and 215 million women worldwide lack access to modern forms of contraception – as Clinton put it, the “numbers are not only grim, but after 15 years, they are intolerable.” Vast gendered inequities remain; and women continue to represent the majority of the world’s “poor, unhealthy, and under-fed.”

Secretary Clinton and the Obama administration’s recognition that investing in women is “the smartest investment to be made…” shows that they’re on the right track. Earlier this year, President Obama and Secretary Clinton demonstrated their support for these issues by appointing Melanne Verveer as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues.  The creation of this position sends a strong message to the world that the United States, in its deliberations on foreign policy and foreign aid, will give top priority to issues that affect women. Ambassador Verveer has since been a strong advocate on behalf of women around the world.  In October, she testified before Congress in hearings in both the House of Representatives and the Senate on violence against women.

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