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Pregnancy in Sierra Leone - a 'Ticket to Death'

Maternal deaths in Sierra Leone are a human-rights emergency, says a new report from Amnesty International, which cites that one in eight women risks dying during pregnancy in the West African country. World leaders are preparing to meet Wednesday to discuss increased funding for health care in the developing world.

Speaking with VOA by phone from Sierra Leone, Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan says pregnancy and childbirth are a ticket to death for many women in the country.

She says women are unable to access lifesaving treatment because they are too poor to pay for it or simply because no health-care facilities are available.

Khan says changes are needed across the board.

"So, there is something for the donors to do - Sierra Leone needs more resources," she said. "There is something for the government to do - it has promised free and better health care, it has to deliver on that. And there is, of course, something for the communities to do - and that is to make sure that women who need healthcare receive it."

Irene Khan says women have low social status in many rural areas of Sierra Leone and this is a major part of the problem.

"This is a country where there is severe discrimination against women. Under customary law in rural areas women are treated as minors, like children, and are not allowed to make the decisions about whether or not they should have children, whether they should have access to contraception, whether they should have access to health care - those decisions are not made by women. And therefore improving the status of women is going to be a very important part of tackling maternal mortality in Sierra Leone."

Khan says increased funding from donor governments is crucial, but she says the money must be monitored to ensure proper use.

"A lot of the money is mismanaged, siphoned off into corruption and bribery," she said. "Money is not being used in a proper way to build up health systems and to build them up in places where women can access it. Not in the capital city, but in distant villages and rural areas and districts, health facilities have to be built up and donors can make sure that that happens."

Sierra Leone suffers from one of the highest maternal death rates in the world. During the next few weeks Amnesty International will tour the country in a caravan, raising awareness of the issue and demanding improved health services from the government.

World leaders meet in New York this week and increased funding for health care in developing countries is on the agenda. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is expected to announce a series of new finance packages with particular focus on infant and maternal health.