The latest from Sierra Leone

17th March 2011

At Health Poverty Action, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day on 8 March. We are supporting women in our operational area to undertake the Northern Bombali Young Women Campaign for free contraception; an advocacy campaign asking key stakeholders responsible for health at the district level for improved access to free contraception and user education.

This issue is vital in the quest to reduce maternal mortility, which is essential if Sierra Leone is to meet the millennium development goals in 2015. Low contraceptive use is one factor strongly associated with a high risk of dying from complications in pregnancy in African countries (as outlined in the Fifth African Population Conference in Tanzania in December 2007) and studies show that spacing children at least 36 months apart reduces the risk of infant death. In Northern Bombali this is particularly important because knowledge of at least one method of contraception is lowest among the women in the northern region (67%) and modern contraceptive use is estimated at just 4%. The survey revealed that 28% of married women in Sierra Leone would like to space their next birth or stop childbearing and have an unmet need for family planning.

Last month we facilitated a series of workshops funded by the International Planned Parenthood Federation with almost 80 women from Northern Bombali District. The participants included young women, maternal health promoters and maternal and child health aides. During the workshops, we used participatory discussion tools to enable women to identify the causes and consequences of low use of contraception, propose realistic solutions to the problems and develop their own advocacy campaigns targeting key individuals.

Throughout the workshops, three key issues were identified, which the women appealed to key stakeholders to address at a press conference last week. The key issues were: lack of access to family planning services in remote areas, lack of male engagement in family planning issues and finally the presence of perceived or actual costs for contraception. The women suggested that community health workers, such as maternal health promoters, are engaged to disseminate family planning information and distribute contraceptives in remote areas. They want male community elders, such as religious or traditional leaders, to be engaged by health service providers to have a greater involvement in raising awareness and acceptability of family planning at community and district level. Finally the women called for greater publicity of the availability of free contraception in government clinics and robust systems to ensure that contraceptives are provided free of cost.

The theme for the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day was ‘Equal access to education and training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women’. Enabling women in Sierra Leone and worldwide to take greater control of their fertility and reproduction is essential if women are to truly enjoy equal access to education and decent work opportunities.