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Gambia maternal mortality: women push for change through social media

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On 19 December, Adama Darboe, died at a Gambian government hospital, just five days after she gave birth to triplets. She was 36-years-old. The babies are now being taken care of by their aunt, Aminata Sowe, who says she has received no support from the government – the Social Welfare agency didn’t even respond to her request for help after her sister in-law died.

“In the beginning, we had support from individuals but now that has stopped — the only people helping us now is Women’s Lives Matter,” says Sowe, referring to the movement started by women in the Gambia who were fed up with the number of women dying in childbirth or right after.

Gambian activists are calling on the government to enable stronger measures to stem the rate of maternal deaths, using social media to get their message across.

Late last year, hundreds of Gambian women used the hashtag #WomensLivesMatter to protest against what they consider as high maternal mortality. They also took to the streets of Westfield outside the capital, Banjul, in September to call attention to fact that their mothers, sisters and aunts are dying.

The group also tries to fill in the gaps where the government is lacking, like in the case of the triplets. “Sometimes we receive calls at midnight to help women in hospitals with blood donors, and in most cases we give financial support to victim’s families,” says Aisha Sarjoe, a member of Women’s Lives Matter.

Most families allege that doctor negligence results in maternal deaths. Gambia Health Minister Dr. Ahmed Lamin Samateh told Africa Calling that his ministry is not aware of such complaints but he will look into it.

Midwives important in preventing deaths

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A week after the Women’s Lives Matter protest, the mothers and midwives’ association held a similar protest calling on the government to promote midwives, respect their work, and pay them what they’re worth. Basiru Camara, a midwife, acknowledges that midwives need to be paid better by the government as well as create more training opportunities.

“The government should try to look at ways of motivating the midwives for them to stay so we can have more skillful midwives in our communities and health facilities; retaining midwives remains a challenge,” he says.

Though the rate of maternal mortality decreased by 36 percent between 2013 to 2019 according to a national demographic survey, the many maternal deaths that have been reported on social media in recent months have sparked public anger and put the issue at the top of the political discourse.

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Minister Sameteh says the government is aware of the public’s concerns and that his ministry is doing what it can in insuring that every pregnancy is delivered safely.

“Now there is more visibility, there is the social media, there is the internet — if one woman dies, the people post it on the net and then if unfortunately it happens again, people will say, ‘oh! It’s on the rise,’” he says.

“It is important for us to tell the people that maternal mortality in the Gambia is one of the lowest in Africa,” he adds.

According to the UN Children’s Fund, Gambia maternal mortality statistics are very high – for every 10,000 births, 597 women died in 2019.

Samateh says the government is trying to stem the maternal mortality rate by hosting a series of community outreach programs, especially in rural areas, to create awareness of maternal health issues.

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The new wave of social media advocacy has pushed policy makers to respond to the needs of the Gambian people, says Kunle Adeniyi, country representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

He says more women were dying in the Gambia due to maternal health issues in 2005, but there was no noise about it. Presently, activists and others on social media are giving visibility to these issues.

“It’s bringing accountability of government systems, on duty bearers like myself and the minister and everyone else to say this is what is happening so I think it puts us on our toes,” says Adeniyi.

Social media advocacy is making Gambians aware of high maternal mortality, now women and activist are demanding better for themselves and their children.

According to the 2019-2020 preliminary report of the demographic and healthy survey by the Gambia Bureau of Statistics, for every thousand births in the Gambia, about three women die during pregnancy or within two months of the end of pregnancy.

Originally published on RFI

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