Aminata Conteh-Biger has “gone through hell to stand in glory”. She is the founder and chief executive officer of the Aminata Maternal Foundation, a special representative for Australia’s United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and author of Rising Heart – a book on her incredible story of survival after being taken hostage during the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone.
“I am a woman of colour. I am an African Australian woman. I am a former refugee, a victim of sex slavery and violence,” she told the National Press Club.
“I am a wife. I am a mother to two precious humans.
“I am now the CEO and the founder of the Aminata Maternal Foundation. an Australian not-for-profit to end infant maternal mortality in the country of Sierra Leone.
“I am also dyslexic and I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would co-write a book, Rising Heart, but I did.”
In partnership with Women in Media, this extraordinary woman spoke at the National Press Club on “Restoring Dignity to Humanity, One Woman’s Ultimate Purpose”.
WARNING: The address contains information about sexual assault and violence. Should you need crisis support contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Indignity leads to hopelessness and despair
“It’s easy to forget the dignity we all live in this civilised society. Dignity, a human right that sits quietly invisible in all of us,” she said.
“My story has a dark, secret truth, but it also has a spirit and light.
“Dark shows me the uncivilised humanity, human rights being brutally stripped away by our own kind.
“I tell you my story and I know to you no matter how dark in truth, I have never lost my dignity.
“When dignity is lost, indignity has a voice – a very loud voice.”
Aminata Conteh-Biger says “I am my own role model”. Photo: Karleen Minney
KIDNAPPED AS A TEEN
Aminata Conteh-Biger shares her “profoundly secret and uncomfortable” story
Since she was a newborn, her grandfather called her a special name which in one of the local languages means “strength of a woman”.
Her grandfather with the “most beautiful skin” was 107 years old when he was brutally killed during the civil war.
It’s 1999 in Freetown after 11 years of civil war nearing its end.
“Barely a teenager – a girl holding her father’s hand, tightly. His hand shaking uncontrollably, sick with Parkinson’s disease,” she said.
“Thousands of civilians in an open field, the rebels holding guns, … waiting for us all to be killed and asking civilians: “Do you want short sleeves or long sleeves?” You get to choose your fate, how your hand can be amputated.
“One of the rebels looked at the little girl. He said, ‘come’. The little girl walked towards the rebels and let go of her dad’s hand and never looked back on his face.”
She never looked back to protect her father, knowing he would be killed if he dared to fight back.
During several months as a sex slave forced to follow the rebels, two things sustained her – “my faith in God’s goodness and my father’s love”.
Aminata Conteh-Biger addresses the National Press Club. Photo: Karleen Minney
Aminata Conteh-Biger’s pledge if she survived her ordeal
“I promised myself that if I survive, I will forgive,” she said.
“I will forgive the horror that has been done to my body but not my spirit. I vow to live my life fully and widely …
“I will fall in love with no boundaries and I have.
“But more importantly, I will give back to humanity.
“That little girl is standing right in front of you here today.”
Keeping promises to her younger self. Photo: Karleen Minney
DO WE REMEMBER?
“My people deserve it”
Ms Conteh-Biger said the world rightly abhorred the war in Ukraine and celebrated the resilience of Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai who was shot in the head while on the school bus after advocating for educating girls.
She questioned if we remembered January 9, 1999 when rebels attacked Freetown in Sierra Leone.
“My people deserve to be remembered,” she said.
Ms Conteh-Biger said she was the voice of “millions of voiceless girls, unrepresented babies, and mothers dying pointless deaths in Sierra Leone”.
She described Sierra Leone as the “most dangerous” place to give birth.
UNICEF reports that 1360 mothers die in every 100,000 live births. The mortality rates of neonates, infants and children under five are also amongst the highest globally at 34, 82, and 111 deaths per 1000 live births, respectively.
“I chose to use my trauma for something good, to restore dignity to humanity and make sure no mother dies just because they are in Sierra Leone,” she said.
“The Aminata Maternal Foundation’s vision is to make birth safe now and make birth safe for the future.
“Motherhood should mark a beginning and not the end.”
Her mission relies on charitable giving.
Women in Media Canberra convenor Emma Macdonald with guest speaker Aminata Conteh-Biger. Photo: Karleen Minney.
“As a woman of colour, we are making remarkable change in human dignity,” she said.
“I don’t want to be judged by my race or my gender. I want to be judged by my character, my integrity, my values, my honesty, my consistency and my life experience.
“Integrity, with integrity and character, I’m going to be braver than I’ve ever been.
“I am asking you to choose me. I am asking you to call on your sense of dignity, your sense of humanity to choose the Aminata Maternal Foundation.”
More information about the foundation is available here.
At the National Press Club address, Farm Weekly reporter Brooke Littlewood was also officially presented with The Caroline Jones Women in Media Young Journalist’s Award.