Sex slave survivor, Aminata, saw a pregnant woman lying in the streets covered in urine.

Aminata Conteh-Biger was 18 years old when Revolutionary United Front rebels rounded on her home in Freetown, the epicentre of Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war.

Within moments the rebels took her freedom, within days they took her virginity. Over the next seven months she was relentlessly raped until, in desperation, they freed her in exchange for food.

That nightmare is now 18 years, a continent and 16,700 kilometres away. Today, Aminata lives safely with her husband and two young children in Sydney, where she arrived as Australia’s first Sierra Leonean refugee in 1999.

While she could be forgiven for never again wanting to traverse that distance, to return to the place that was the source of such trauma, Aminata is doing just that in an effort to change – even save – the lives of those left behind.

Her cause? Infant mortality. A phrase she had never heard until her own life-threatening birth experience.

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Aminata. Image: Dateline, SBS.

When Aminata went into labour in June 2012, she was 10 days overdue with an unborn daughter who weighed at around 5kg. Nine hours later, the child's position was precarious, the time for a C-section had passed.

"They'd done everything, they had used the vacuum and nothing was happening," she told Mamamia. "Really they were not trying to get her out alive the just wanted me to survive."

With expert medical care, she did and so did her little girl, albeit with a broken hand.


If Aminata had that experience in Sierra Leone, the outcome would almost certainly have been tragedy.

Taking the fear out of childbirth. (Post continues after podcast.)

While in Australia, there are 6 deaths per 100,000 live births, according to UNICEF, in Sierra Leone there are 1360. On top of that, one in every 17 mothers in the West African country will die due to complications during pregnancy or childbirth.

"It took seven doctors to get my daughter out," Aminata said. "In rural areas of Sierra Leone some people don't even know what a hospital is."

Basic healthcare, she argues, should not be a privilege of the Western world - it should be a universal human right. Particularly for expectant mothers.

"This is the most joyful experience any woman is going to go through in her life. So for her to go through this and not know if she's going to come out alive, if she's going to have a fistula, or not know if the baby is going to survive... I don't think that should be happening," she said.

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Women in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: Dateline, SBS.

It was an eyeopening online video about infant and maternal mortality that helped Aminita realise she ought to play a part it ensuring it doesn't.

"I remember walking into [my daughter's] room and looking at her sleeping," she said. "I said to myself, 'She is the most important person in my life. But she should not be more important than anyone else's child, no matter where they are in the world.'"


After years of research and meetings with influential contacts developed through her role as a UNHCR ambassador, The Aminata Maternal Foundation was born.

The organisation's current funding focus is the Aberdeen Women's Centre in Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital.

Many of its patients were ancillary victims of the Ebola epidemic that tore through Western Africa in 2014 and 2015. A state of emergency was declared, schools and businesses closed and countless girls forced into prostitution to make ends meet, some falling pregnant as young as nine or 10.

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Image: Maureen Collins, The Aminata Maternal Foundation.

As well as providing much-needed medical services, the clinic aims to empower and educate vulnerable groups of teenagers like these through pre- and postnatal classes.

"It's the simplest thing that we can do - give [locals] the education and the tools so that they can learn and pass it on to the next generation," she said.

It's a model that the foundation hopes to emulate in a more rural setting in the next five or so years.

"This is not about stopping a war or poverty," she said. "This is something we can do something about now."

Aminata and her colleagues first visited Aberdeen last September, where a single case brought home the importance of their work.

Zainab Sankoh, a pregnant woman in her 30s, left crying in the dirt, soaked in urine as a result of a fistula - a small hole between the bladder and uterus.


"I asked her what made her so sad and she said, 'Nobody wants to eat my food, nobody wants to talk to me, my husband has moved out because the room smells.' I swear you break when you see this woman," said Aminata.

After negotiation, the village chiefs allowed her to go with Aminata and her colleagues to the clinic where a simple 45-minute operation changed her life.

"What most touched me was that two days after, I could not recognise her because her smile was so big," said Aminata. "She smiled again and that's all she wanted - she doesn't want you to solve her poverty issues, she doesn't want you to feed her, she just wants to go home and have people want to be around her."

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Zainab and her healthy baby. Image: Maureen Collins, The Aminata Maternal Foundation.

Women like Zainab are the real reason Aminata is reconnecting with her birth country, despite everything that happened to her less than two decades ago.

"What that experience taught me was that I made the most important decision to forgive those people [who held her captive]," she said.

"Forgiveness is key. Forgiveness for me is liberating myself from what happened. I am able to be free, I'm not holding myself in a prison."

This freedom has allowed her to move past what happened, to see hope in a place that was once represented horror.

"This [foundation] is my way of showing love for my people and the women of Sierra Leone so that I can give back and help them, show them someone cares about them," she said. "I think it's really important that I go and help my country and take the West with me, and say 'I understand what you've been through, I've gone through what you've gone through and I feel your pain'."

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Aminata, her husband and daughter Sarafina. Image: Dateline, SBS.

While she still thinks often about her time as a captive, Aminata says it doesn't consume her or define her, nor does it bring her shame. Instead she sees it as the source of her strength, which is why she plans to share the story with her children.

"Sometimes we feel like we need to stop children from feeling fear, but we also need to show them strength. You have to give your children and understanding of a foundation about how to be strong. Show them why to look up to you," she said.

"I will explain to them as much as they want to know, I will answer every question; I will not be ashamed, I will not be afraid, because that's the only way they will learn. If my son is going to know how to treat women right, it's because of what I've been through. If my daughter is going to learn how to say no to a man, it's because of what I've been through.

"I will not hide."

Dateline: Daughter of Sierra Leone airs tonight (Tuesday March 7) at 9:30pm on SBS. The episode will be available on SBS On Demand after the broadcast.

For more information on The Aminata Maternal Foundation and its work, please visit the website here.

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