As the BBC’s Today programme continues its yearlong focus on Liberia, Mike Sunderland travelled with presenter Sarah Montague to examine the deadly risks faced by child mothers throughout the country. This is the second part of his report. Read part one.
Family planning services are in their infancy and although contraception is available, it is not widely distributed or used. Liberia is not alone – Save the Children says some 200 million women around the world who do not wish to become pregnant are currently unable to access or use contraception.
If the girls do survive childbirth, the problems do not necessarily end there. Gorma’s body isn’t yet fully developed and there is a chance her pelvis is not large enough to give birth naturally. This could lead to a painful, prolonged labour – itself potentially deadly to mother and child.
Without medical help, prolonged labour can lead to a condition known as obstetric fistula, in which the baby’s head becomes stuck during birth, cutting off circulation and leaveing girls unable to control their bladders, bowels or both. It is a relatively common condition in Liberia and the stigma attached to it can be just as devastating.
We met 15 year-old Maman at a rehabilitation centre run by the United Nations Population Fund. Maman had gone into labour in her village and did not receive help soon enough. The delivery was prolonged and Maman lost her baby. She says she went into a coma for three days and upon waking, realised she had fistula.
At home, her friends mocked her, her boyfriend left and her family abandoned her. Only her grandmother took her in and cared for her. Maman says she woke early every morning to wash her stained clothes to avoid abuse from neighbours. People refused to eat the food she tried to sell to make a living.
Maman has now had surgery to correct her problem and one-day hppes to go home. Liberia’s government has identified maternal health as one of its key targets for improvement in the coming years and has gone to significant lengths to improve access to trained healthcare during pregnancy and childbirth but more help is needed.
The UK government will host a major summit on family planning in London next month, where it is hoped world leaders will commit to increasing the global availability of contraceptives and to make family planning services available to anyone who wants them, anywhere in the world.
It would be money well spent. Family planning can save lives and provides exceptional value for money. It takes just £1 per person per year to provide the relevant services, including contraception.
We left Gorma Farmah in hospital and in capable medical hands. Her bright yellow t-shirt stretched across her belly read “Choice” – something those gathering in London will be tasked with providing for girls like her everywhere.