Fewer than half of girls with disabilities in Sierra Leone attend school, according to the World Bank – and the gap between their attendance and that of girls without disabilities or any boys widens with age. Facing exclusion at home and at school, only about one in 10 people living with disabilities in urban centers – not to mention rural areas – believes that education can help them improve their life, according to research published by University College London.
One Family People is a local nonprofit organization based in Freetown that works to change attitudes about people with disabilities and increase their access to education and other services.
Its “Walpoleans” are girls and young women – with and without disabilities – who compose, record and perform songs and dramas that spread the message,“Disability is not inability.”
Senior program manager Hadiatou Diallo explains how One Family People works to keep girls in school, through changing society’s attitudes and giving practical assistance.
Women & Girls Hub: What inspires your work promoting access to education and human rights for girls and those with disabilities in Sierra Leone?
Hadiatou Diallo: I believe that no person should be left behind and that everyone should be included.
Before One Family People, I was a child advocate. Thanks to my mother I was educated and because of that, I said “no” to early marriage. I was advocating for girls’ right to education because in my tribe, the Fula, they believe in giving away girls to early marriage. They are afraid girls will get pregnant, shame the family and then increase poverty, because most families are poor. If you have a child, you are bringing another mouth to feed; it’s their problem, so they feel it’s better to give you in marriage.
I saw another young woman who was advocating for girls’ education and I said, “OK, I will also stand up for this.” I was fortunate to have the opportunity to go to school, so I’ll make sure other girls have equal opportunity.
In doing this, I discovered that there are girls who have been left behind: girls with disabilities. They have no defenders, they have nobody to talk for them, they don’t have information. Life is like darkness for them.
Women & Girls Hub: What challenges do girls and young women with disabilities face in Sierra Leone?
Diallo: Girls and boys with disabilities are often abandoned by their parents – not because their parents hate them, but because they have no knowledge about how to take care of these children. Their parents become stressed with society; they are stigmatized, their husbands leave them. So they decide, “OK, this child is a problem,” and they abandon the child. The children end up being by themselves. Students with disabilities need scholarships to stay in school and so that their parents don’t abandon them.
Women & Girls Hub: Why does One Family People focus on empowering girls and young women with disabilities?
Diallo: At One Family People, we promote equal-rights opportunities for girls. We focus on persons with physical and intellectual disabilities in general, but we zero it down to girls and women with disabilities because we see that they are most vulnerable.
Most girls with disabilities drop out of school; some turn into sex workers. Men exploit them at night, but nobody sees them during the daytime. So when they say, “This is the man who impregnated me,” the man can deny it and the girl becomes a single mother and beggar on the street to survive and take care of her children.
Women & Girls Hub: How do you work with girls with disabilities to combat this exclusion from education and exploitation?
Diallo: We run a 10-month peer education training program for girls and young women under the age of 25. During those 10 months, we identify outstanding leaders – and most of the time, the girls with disabilities come out outstanding. We support them to reach other girls and give them a stipend when they start teaching other girls; they use that money to support their educational needs. We provide educational support to 500 children with disabilities.
Right now, we have 69 disabled girls who are leaders. They advocate for their rights in a project we’ve implemented for five years that’s part of the Girl Power Alliance. It provides economic empowerment and education about social services available to them and how to access them.
Specifically, we use plots [plays], music and dramas. It’s a mixed group of girls and young people with disabilities and girls without disabilities – they are called Walpoleans [after Walpole Street in downtown Freetown]. They use music to raise awareness about the rights of persons with disabilities and advocate for inclusion.
Women & Girls Hub: What are the most critical tools you need to help people with disabilities receive an education?
Diallo: In Sierra Leone, we face a lack of services, lack of assistive devices, lack of rehabilitation centers for persons with disabilities.
The most important tool we need is access to assistive devices that will help students to move independently: wheelchairs, crutches, Braille-like materials, sign language materials. Physical school buildings often aren’t friendly for persons with disabilities to access, and there are no special-needs teachers or learning materials. We need teachers who understand their needs and can deliver in a way that enables them to perform equally.