In Sierra Leone, supporting children living with disabilities

By Harriet Mason, Communications Officer with UNICEF Sierra Leone

WATERLOO, Sierra Leone – As I stepped into the house in a suburb of Waterloo Town, western Sierra Leone, something immediately caught my eye – the broad smile on the face of a 13-year-old boy sitting in a wheelchair and beckoning me to sit beside him.

Ibrahim Tarawallie was born with some disabilities and has been dependent on his family to move around the house and look after him. “Carrying him has become tough because he is now older and heavier,” said his mother Elizabeth.

But she is not letting that stop her from caring for him. “He is my child and I can’t abandon him. I will keep looking after him as best as I can.”

Ibrahim Tarawallie, 13, sits in the veranda of their home in Waterloo, Western Sierra Leone. ©UNICEF Sierra Leone/2018/Mason

Globally, more than one billion people live with some form of disability, something that frequently leads to them being among the most marginalised. They experience wide violations of their rights and discrimination in many aspects of their lives, mostly because of other people’s lack of understanding of the causes and effects of their disabilities, fear of contagion, and religious or cultural beliefs.

Sierra Leone, like many other countries affected by past conflict, has a high prevalence of people living with disabilities. The country’s brutal civil war (1991-2002) left about 1,600 people living with forced amputations. Many others are suffering the after-effects of preventable diseases like polio and measles.

Access to education is a key challenge for children with disabilities, resulting in a majority having little or no schooling. This leads to further marginalisation, making gainful employment difficult, and often leaving them with no option but to depend on family assistance or street begging. This is despite the provisions of the Sierra Leone Disability Act (2011) that underlines the rights of people with disabilities, including children, to social services such as education, health and early detection of a disability (section 18 of the Act).

According to Sheka Tarawallie, Ibrahim’s father, the family has been finding it difficult to provide basic care for him: “We struggle to even keep him clean at all times because nappies are very expensive and we can’t afford it,” he said. “His mother has to launder his bed sheet every day, each time we run out of them. That is exhausting and not good for her health.”

Ibrahim Tarawallie, 13, in a physiotherapy session with Abubakarr Koroma, a Rehabilitation Therapist, as his father Sheka(left) observes. ©UNICEF Sierra Leone/2018/Mason

But thanks to support from UK aid from the British people, which has made critical programme supplies and assets from the Ebola response available to the broader benefit of vulnerable populations in Sierra Leone, UNICEF has been able to help children like Ibrahim and their families, through its implementing partner ‘Enable the Children’ (supported through World Hope International). Over the past year, families have been provided with wheelchairs, as well as boxes of nappies, laundry buckets and bowls, kitchen utensils, towels and physiotherapy kits. “The support has brought positive changes in the lives of the children and their families,” said Abubakarr Koroma, Rehabilitation Therapist at World Hope International. “The children have a range of challenges including physical and psychological, which most families find difficult to handle,” he added.

Ibrahim Tarawallie, 13, flanked by his parents Elizabeth and Sheka in their home in Waterloo, western Sierra Leone. ©UNICEF Sierra Leone/2018/Mason

“We really appreciate the support we have been receiving,” said mother Elizabeth. “The physiotherapy items have been very useful because we use them to help him exercise.” In this way, ‘Enable the Children’ have been able to assist approximately 400 children and their families in and around Freetown, through the support from UNICEF and UK funding.

In a country where children account for about 25 per cent of people living with disabilities, much more needs to be done to help them survive and have a fair chance to thrive and reach their full potential, supported by their families and accepted in their communities.