Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world. The risks are even greater for teenage girls who become pregnant, with up to one in ten dying in childbirth.
In this blog, Lucy November, co-founder of 2YoungLives, a mentoring project for pregnant teenagers, describes the risks faced by teenage girls in Sierra Leone and the barriers they face to accessing maternity care. She talks about how 2YoungLives is making pregnancy and birth safer for this vulnerable group through mentoring, building community and equipping young mothers to support themselves and their babies.
Aminata* didn’t plan to become pregnant at 15. When her mum died, she was sent to live with her aunty in the country’s capital city, Freetown, and felt from the outset that she was not welcome. Her cousins were attending school but there was no money to send Aminata, and instead she was expected to fetch water for the household every day, often spending four or five hours in the queue. When Patrick, one of the men who ran the pump, asked her to be his girlfriend, saying she could jump the water queue and he would also pay her school fees, she felt that she could finally get back on track.
No-one had ever talked to Aminata about sex, contraception or pregnancy, and when she missed her period she was just pleased not to have to bother her aunty for sanitary pads which always made her feel like a burden. She discovered she was pregnant one evening several months later when her aunty noticed her changing body and confronted her, screaming that she had disgraced the family and would have to leave. Her few belongings were thrown into the street and she was on her own again. Patrick had told her he loved her, and she was sure he would be happy, so she climbed the hill to the water pump to tell him the news, only to be told he had already heard and left Freetown earlier in the day with no explanation.
Knowing there was nowhere else for her to go, Aminata asked her cousin if she could sleep in his car, where she lay down and cried. The months that followed saw her finding different places to sleep - an empty market stall, a friend’s floor, an abandoned building. She would eat meals here and there in exchange for carrying water, washing pots and occasionally having sex with men she barely knew, who took advantage of her desperation.
When she went into labour at eight months, Aminata was anaemic, malnourished and had a sexually transmitted infection. By the time she was taken to the hospital by a neighbour of her aunt’s, her baby was already dead and she was bleeding heavily. The 500ml of blood that she lost would hardly be noticed by a healthy, nourished woman, but for Aminata it was catastrophic. In a culture where blood is donated in an emergency by a relative, Aminata had no options and no money to pay, and died that night with her unborn baby.
This is a true story, but it is not a story about just one girl; it describes the experiences of many pregnant girls in Sierra Leone. I lived in Freetown from 2001 to 2004, working with Lifeline Nehemiah Projects with children affected by the 10 year civil war, so was only too aware of the statistics that make Sierra Leone one of the most dangerous places to give birth. I saw the issues the young people we were supporting faced as they started to have their own families.
A survey we did in 2015 in Eastern Freetown showed a 1 in 10 incidence of maternal death for girls becoming pregnant under the age of 18—in the UK the figure is 1 in 10,000. There are many reasons for this high death rate. Upstream social determinants such as poverty, gendered social norms, sexual coercion and stigma mean that girls have little agency with their sexual and reproductive lives, and once pregnant they are almost always thrown out of home and struggle to eat regularly or prepare for birth. Disrespectful care at health facilities means that they often do not take up antenatal care and are at very high risk of death from anaemia, bleeding, eclampsia, infections and prolonged labour leading to fistula.
I got together with my friend Mangenda Kamara, a gender studies specialist who lives in Freetown, and we looked at what we could do to help these girls. We realised that what they needed was a supportive, consistent adult to make sure they were safe and able to access maternity care as well as having the means to eat well in pregnancy and provide for their babies.
We developed 2YoungLives as a simple, scalable, sustainable solution to this intractable issue. It is a mentoring scheme which pairs women known for kindness and compassion with three vulnerable pregnant girls. The project provides the girls with money to start a small business which the mentor supports them to run, allowing them to eat well in pregnancy. As a ‘loving aunty’, the mentor helps the girls to register for antenatal clinic, going with them for check-ups and being a birth partner when the girls go into labour. She provides emotional support, and gathers the girls to eat together, encouraging peer friendships.
After birth, the mentor continues to support each girl, not taking over but being available if there are problems with breastfeeding, if she needs a few hours of sleep after a bad night, or if the baby is not well, encouraging timely care-seeking and ensuring the baby gets all immunisations. The mentors also promote postnatal contraception, reducing the risk of a second teenage pregnancy with its associated compounded risks.
Since we started with our first team of four mentors in 2017, we have grown steadily to six teams—24 mentors in all—in urban, peri-urban and rural districts. We have seen great success in reducing the risk of maternal and neonatal death. Since 2017, the project has mentored over 200 girls; we have had no maternal deaths and a much-reduced rate of stillbirth and neonatal death. In addition, an education bursary grant from King’s College London in 2021 has allowed many girls to return to school or attend vocational training; some are now fully qualified plumbers and electricians.
2YoungLives is now part of an NIHR-funded Global Health Group, a partnership between King’s College London, the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation, Lifeline Nehemiah Projects (the Sierra Leone-based organisation that runs 2YoungLives), Welbodi Partnership and the University of Sierra Leone, and we are about to double our provision by starting a cluster-randomised feasibility trial in six new sites. There is a high level of buy-in from stakeholders—from local chiefs and women’s leaders to Ministry of Health representatives—as tackling teenage pregnancy, child marriage and maternal mortality are all highly prioritised policy areas in Sierra Leone.
2YoungLives improves patient safety by seeing these young women not simply as ‘patients’ on the isolated occasions when they attend the clinic or come in to give birth, but by addressing the social determinants of maternal health and death. Our mentors provide the most basic of protective factors: a relationship with a caring adult. As a result of our mentors' support, the young women we work with are thriving, not just surviving.
You can read more about 2YoungLives and how to support its work on the 2YoungLives website.
*not her real name
1 November L, Sandall J. ‘Just because she’s young, it doesn’t mean she has to die’: exploring the contributing factors to high maternal mortality in adolescents in Eastern Freetown; a qualitative study. Reproductive Health. 21 February 2018
2 Palathingal A. National strategy for the reduction of adolescent pregnancy and child marriage 2018-2022. United Nations Population Fund Sierra Leone. 2018
About the Author
Lucy November is a midwife researcher in the UK and Sierra Leone, with a special interest in outcomes for pregnant teenagers and adolescent mothers. Her work in the UK is with mothers in parent-and-child foster placements and other social care settings.