By Hassan Ibrahim Conteh
“We are not too old to be disable; anyone at any stage could be a disable,” rebuffed the Minister of Social Welfare, because of a derogatory remark whispered against a disabled child at a recent vocational school launching ceremony.
Physically challenged persons are often neglected, mocked, isolated and discriminated against in society. In Sierra Leone, the local term “Aflawoo” is often associated to half-mentally disturbed persons.
Our societies usually frown at such people who behave abnormally. It is generally a “stereotypical” norm that such category of people is influenced by “evil spirit” as sacrifices. They are regarded as a burden to parents who also have limited opportunities in public, such as acquiring quality education in public schools, having access to free health care and getting employment in public and private sectors.
Over 60% of disabled children later become beggars on the streets because of lack of support, encouragement and public engagement to enable them to fully discover their abilities and potentials. However, there has been international and national commitment to enhancing and strengthening the promotion and protection of the well-being of persons with disabilities.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Article 8, stipulates that “state parties must combat stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practices relating to persons with disabilities, including those based on sex and age, in all areas of life.”
The Convention, which comes into force in 2006, provides a legal framework which seeks to protect, promote and empower the lives of persons with disabilities. As part of its international commitment to honouring the UN Disability Convention, Sierra Leone domesticated the Persons with Disabilities Act of 2011.
Although the said domesticated Act has statutory powers, the reality on the ground paints a murky picture. There have not been much reports or evidence of some legal actions such as fines imposed on people who ridicule, stigmatize and discriminate against persons with disabilities.
The Act places a five million Leones penalty or an imprisonment term slammed on any person who contravenes the provisions enshrined in the Persons with Disability Act of 2011.
Many local advocacy organizations are now taking up the lead to empowering disabled persons and other vulnerable groups in societies. Nevertheless, there is some little encouraging effort directed at the campaign and advocacy on issues affecting persons with disabilities. But this is stifled by financial viability, logistical support and accommodation facilities.
Earlier, Preach Peace Organization (PPO), in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Welfare, launched a vocational skills training centre for women and girls at Morabie community in Waterloo.
At the occasion, Chief Executive Officer of PPO, Abubakrr Sesay, told members of the audience that the organization focuses on empowerment of women and girls, especially disabled persons, noting that the organization fights to stop teenage pregnancy.
“Our organization discourages any form of discrimination against disabled persons. We believe the able and disabled individuals should enjoy similar opportunities,” he said.
In retrospect, Mr. Sesay said the organization had conducted a survey in places like Tombo, Grafton, Devil Hole, and Morabie communities in order to understand the situation of vulnerable women and girls.
“The idea to establish the skills training centre came after an experience we had with many of the girls whom we interviewed on the streets during our feasibility study exercise,” he explained.
The vocational school is a skills training centre, which targets teenage mothers, adolescents and disabled persons for sustainable development. The school was officially commissioned by the Minister of Social Welfare on behalf of the First Lady, Fatima Bio, on Thursday 8th October 2020.
The first phase of the training centre focuses on two major courses, which are soap making and tailoring. But the organization said two other courses, such as gara tie dyeing and hairdressing, will start in December this year.
Mariatu Sesay, a disabled, who offered to do soap making at PPO, could not walk. She was crawling on the ground through the crowd to narrate her ordeal. Mariatu said her parents considered her as a devil when she was born at Ma Shenk village around Four Mile town.
Her mother had a terrible illness that she couldn’t afford to raise her up. She was later thrown out in the bush by her mother, but was eventually rescued by one Ian M. Kanu, Executive Director of Disable with Vision, an advocacy organization based in Waterloo, Lovers’ Corners.
Mr. Kanu brought Mariatu and four others in Wate rloo. Most disabled organizations are struggling to get building space to house their students. Disable with Vision (DWV) was using an “empty building” as a skills training centre freely given to them as a help by someone.
The centre is jointly supported by some “goodwill wishers” who donated tailoring machines, gara tie dying materials and other teaching logistics needed by the trainees.
“Somebody told the owner of the building that we (disabled) hardly leave a place if needed by its owner. So we are asked to abandon there. We really want government to help us with a skills training centre for disabled persons. Because we don’t want them to be beggars,” Kanu explained.
DWV is pushing hard for an accommodation or possibly for a permanent structure. It used to have 50 disabled children, including Mariatu Sesay, who was attending DWV’s Skills Training Centre.
”I usually help them with the little we can afford, especially with skills training. But we lack (financial) support,” Mr. Kanu explained.
After DWV Training Centre collapsed, Mariatu had to live on her own, especially when the Organization could no longer upkeep them. She was living in an unfinished building. In order to survive, Mariatu was selling brooms, vegetation leaves, laundering and fetching water for people. She was impregnated and abandoned. She now has to take care of her 5 year-old child, all by herself.
It is very common to see pregnant girls being abandoned or denied by those who impregnated them. Worse of it is when the parents of the teenage pregnant girls disown them, which often results to their begging on the streets for their survival.
Preach Peace is determined to uplift the lives of such vulnerable, teenage pregnant girls in the Western Area Rural District. A fortune smiles at Mariatu when Preach Peach selected her to attend a newly established vocational skills training school at Morabie community.
At that launching ceremony, the Minister of Social Welfare, Madam Baindu Dasama, promised to help Mariatau Sesay whose sad story emotionally touched everyone.
“We want Mariatu to be an example for the disabled. Don’t allow anything to limit you. You need to “raise the bar high.” Mariatu never gave up. Now she has had the privilege to attend this school. Mariatu is now my sister. She will have my support. I hope my sister (Mariatu Sesay) will enjoy the new wheelchair,” Madam Dasama said.
The minister advised other disabled children to take advantage of the opportunity of the skills training school. Madam Dasama warned that people must not look at vocational courses, such as gara tie dyeing, tailoring and soap making, as courses meant for ‘drop outs’ only.
Her ministry is preparing a country report on the status of disability issues to be submitted to the UN Disability Summit later this year, she disclosed.
“We want to make sure that we are in line with other countries around the world in terms of international best practice on disability issues,” she assured.
Madam Dasama informed members of the audience that government is committed to supporting technical and vocational education, adding that the Bio government will ensure that any school built is “disable friendly.”
“Disabled persons are at the heart of everything government is doing,” she said.
A senior official at the Social Welfare Ministry advised people to stop giving “derogatory” names or saying “provocative” slangs to physically challenged persons. The minister called on the private sector and donor partners to complement government’s effort in empowering disabled persons.
Madam Dasama disclosed that the ministry usually donates “wheelchairs” to physically challenged persons, but that names, addresses and phone contacts of those benefitting from such donation would now be required for data verification, a move to discourage ‘cheating’.
She advised the newly recruited students to stay focused, learn and acquire the skills taught in order to enable them to be self-reliant.
Disables’ Voices Count
The proprietress of the Vulnerable, Children Pre- Primary and Junior Secondary School, Madam Alice Koroma, who is also a physically challenged person, said disabled persons are often discriminated in a manner that she referred to as “double times”.
“Our voices should be heard,” she said.
Mrs. Koroma encouraged the disabled students to take the skills training project very seriously, advising that learning such skills would enable them to solve most of their problems as they stand to generate some income in the future.
She said Preach Peace Organization takes disabled persons very important, adding that they have done many things for the disabled children in her school.