Everyone knows someone who's died

Amnesty International team researching maternal mortality, Republic of Sierra Leone / Elana Dallas

Saturday 31 January: We spent today following up the stories of women who died in childbirth. We found some of the cases in the hospital records, some by just asking around. Everyone knows someone who’s died – in a taxi on the way to hospital, at home, in the hospital.

People are unbelievably helpful – they get in the car to take us to meet the families we’re looking for, they help us with translations, they give up their time to us, willingly. And, unfailingly, when we arrive at someone’s house, they bring out benches and chairs for us to sit on in some shade and talk to us as dozens of village children and adults gather round watching this event.

They tell us their stories – stories of trying to raise the money to pay for transport to get to the hospital; stories of being unwilling to pay the fees that the hospital charges when they think their wife is going to die anyway; stories of doctors just not being there, of children being parcelled out to relatives.

What emerges above are all two things – that the government’s proclaimed policy of free care for pregnant women is empty rhetoric, and that most of the women spend their lives working, bearing children, with no control over their lives, no access to money of their own, even though they clearly do most of the work, no decision-making power. And they’re dying – often in agony – in frightening numbers.