47,000 women die each year from unsafe abortions. Now is not the time to pull the plug on family planning

International Women’s Day is a reminder that women and girls across the world are the hardest hit by conflict and disaster. In Sierra Leone, family planning is a lifeline — but it is coming under threat.

Over 11,000 people lost their lives to Ebola between March 2014 and January 2016.The epidemic made headlines across the world and the international community vowed to prevent such a crisis happening again.

Less attention is given to the 47,000 women across the world who die each year from complications relating to unsafe abortions. This is despite the number being over four times higher than the total number of deaths from Ebola.

This International Women’s Day, women and girls in Sierra Leone face a number of threats to their lives and livelihoods. One of the countries worst hit by Ebola, Sierra Leone also has the highest maternal mortality in the world. The country is in a key stage of its recovery, fighting to rebuild its health system devastated by the epidemic.

IRC Health Manager Phebean Momoh helps a new mother in Kono to position her baby for kangaroo mother care.

On a visit to Kanema, the largest city in the East of Sierra Leone, I saw the scale of the challenge first-hand. The city hospital receives referrals from all over the countryside. The hospital has only one ambulance, which is funded by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) but is beginning to break down. Women are dying because they can’t get to hospital in time.

For women in countries recovering from crisis like in Sierra Leone, family planning services can be a lifeline. Women have told IRC staff that the advice provided in consultations empowers them, giving them a choice over their future. Nevertheless, significant challenges remain — only 22 percent of women in the country are using a modern form of contraception.


The new ‘Global Gag Rule’ could not have come at a worse time

The rule, introduced by US President Ronald Reagan in 1985, cuts funds for organisations that provide, advocate for, or refer clients for abortions. However, when it was last implemented by President George W. Bush in 2001, abortion rates rose sharply in 20 sub-Saharan African countries that had previously relied heavily on U.S. family planning support.

This is a result of the fact that many organisations providing abortions also provide family planning services. The International Planned Parenthood Foundation, for example, is the largest non-governmental provider of contraception in the world. Evidence confirmed that the rise in abortions following the ban was due to limited access to contraception, resulting in high numbers of unwanted pregnancies.

Under Presidents Reagan and Bush the ban only targeted reproductive health services, whereas this time the order has been extended to cover all global health assistance. This means that funding could be cut to organisations fighting malaria and HIV, with devastating consequences.

Adolescent girl in Kono district, who wants to stay in school and fulfil her potential.

The policy will hit adolescent girls in Sierra Leone

These girls were already the worst affected by Ebola. The epidemic forced the closure of thousands of schools across the country, leading to an increase in sexual violence and child pregnancies. Girls who had become pregnant were excluded from schools by law in April 2015, leaving many without an education even when schools re-opened.

I visited a women’s centre for survivors of gender-based violence. I spoke to adolescent girls who had become pregnant and left school as a result. Some told me that they had been thrown out of their families, or forced to sell sex just to survive.

When I asked them their hopes for the future, every single one of them said what they wanted now was to get back into school. Education was where they saw hope for the future.

The IRC are also responding in Sierra Leone by providing material resources and trainings for staff at government hospitals. We have also supported awareness raising in the community, and have provided contraception to thousands of women and girls in need.

The British government has recognised that providing family planning and keeping girls in school is a priority. The Department for International Development (DFID) has partnered with the government of Sierra Leone, providing family planning services for 60,000 people. Secretary of State Priti Patel has spoken about family planning being an important priority, and pledged to show “global health leadership” in its delivery.

Family planning is essential to empower women and girls and recover from humanitarian emergencies. Now is not the time to pull the plug on this life-saving support.


The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 29 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities.

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