Ensuring access to services for vulnerable children in Sierra Leone

 

Adama Mansaray is a Social worker for the UNICEF-supported Non-Governmental Organization, Defence for Children International or ‘DCI’. Each day, she travels around the city of Makeni, in Bombali District, Sierra Leone, visiting various institutions dealing with children.

Together with other colleagues, she makes stops at residential care facilities, police stations, court houses, correctional centres, orphanages, and even individual homes in which there have been reports of children who may be abused or neglected. Through these daily visits, Adama checks up on cases already known to her – while keeping an eye out for new cases involving children who may require assistance or support.

It was during one of these daily ‘rounds’ that she first learned about a 12-year-old girl, Isatu (not her real name), who had been forcefully attacked and raped by an older man, while she was out selling homemade cakes to earn money for her struggling family. Isatu and her parents had gone to the local police station to file a report the night before, and when Adama learned of the incident, she immediately went to the family home.

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“Many times, we find that families don’t understand the legal process, or know how to access important services available in their communities,” Adama explains, “which can lead to cases becoming compromised, or victims not receiving the support they need.”

Luckily, when Adama arrived at Isatu’s home, she was able to speak with the family right away, and explain about the legal process for such cases, as well as the actions needed to ensure Isatu’s case would not be thrown out later.

“We were so upset when this thing happened,” remembers Isatu’s mother, Mariama (also not her real name), “And I had no knowledge about how the justice system works – I had never even been to a court or police station before. But when Adama came, we were willing to accept her help to take up the case, because she encouraged us and supported us to go through the process and made sure we understood.”

Isatu’s story is just one of thousands of child rape and sexual penetration offenses that occur in Sierra Leone each year – a large portion of which go unreported, or never result in justice. In fact, the situation is so serious that in February 2019, the President of Sierra Leone declared rape and sexual violence to be a national emergency.

This is where the work of UNICEF and its child protection partners comes in, each of whom support the Government in addressing these issues across the country. However, with only 53 government social workers nationwide and a limited operating budget, the social work sector remains largely underequipped to tackle such an emergency.

“In Isatu’s case,” explains DCI’s District Program Manager, Raymond Senesie, “we were able to link the victim and her family to a number of key service providers, including the government hospital and a private clinic (where we took Isatu to receive immediate treatment and scans), the Legal Aid Board (which advised the victim’s family on court procedures), and local Prosecutors (who represent victim’s cases free of charge, at the initial Magistrate’s Court level).”

“We also took additional evidence we collected to the police station to be added to Isatu’s case file, and uploaded copies of everything into our Primero account,” Senesie adds, referring to a new open source software, which facilitates the secure collection, storage and sharing of data in child protection cases. Social workers were provided training on Primero by UNICEF and the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs in 2018.

“This program makes it much easier to track cases,” Senesie explains, “and we were able to quickly update [Isatu’s] file as we ensured her case was charged to court, ensured the accused man was remanded in police custody, and supported [Isatu] and her family through three hearings at the Magistrate’s Court in Makeni.”

Today, Isatu’s case has been sent to the High Court, where it is awaiting trial. Meanwhile, Isatu and her family continue to receive ongoing legal support and psycho-social counselling from DCI case workers – who have spoken not only with Isatu, but also with her parents and with students at her school, who had found out about the incident and were teasing Isatu as a result.

“Really, the counselling is helping so much,” says Mariama. “After the social worker visited the school, the other students apologised to [Isatu], and since then I can see the attitude of my child change. The counsellor also encouraged me to cut down on the time that I sent [Isatu] out to sell and help her to concentrate more on her studies. Now she is studying more, and I try to help make sure she feels happy and safe.”