In March 2020, Sierra Leone overturned a ban on pregnant girls attending school, after the ECOWAS Regional Human Rights Court ruled it to be “discriminatory and a violation of girls’ basic human rights”. This was crucial progress towards more gender-equal and inclusive education in Sierra Leone, and the first step in a broader “radical inclusion” policy led by the Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, Dr. David Sengeh. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic posed new and complex challenges for Sierra Leone’s inclusion efforts, with the most marginalized learners at risk of being left behind.
As an education project officer for Sightsavers in Sierra Leone, I have seen first-hand the transformative potential of inclusive education initiatives. Since 2012, Sightsavers has partnered with the government, NGOs, Organisations of People with Disabilities and selected communities in Sierra Leone to develop innovative and evidence-based approaches to promote inclusive education.
This is particularly important for girls with disabilities, who often face exclusion and marginalization in education due to social norms and cultural bias around gender and disability. The GEMR 2020 Gender Report confirms that efforts to reduce gender disparities have resulted in significant increases in school attendance, but girls with disabilities continue to be left behind. Girls with disabilities often struggle to get to schools that are far from their homes. At school, girls often face a lack of accessible toilets and hygiene assistance, while special devices and services are often given to boys first.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has intensified existing inequalities faced by the most marginalized learners, including girls with disabilities. UNESCO estimates that an additional 11 million girls and young women may never return to school as a result of this widespread disruption to education. In Sierra Leone, we are already familiar with the potential setbacks to education that health crises can have, particularly for girls. Research on the impact of the Ebola outbreak shows that girls became further marginalized in economic and educational opportunities through the crisis and faced increased vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence. This reality cannot be repeated. As we continue to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and fight for more inclusive education, we must ensure that girls, especially those with disabilities, are not left behind. Marie, an ambitious and inspirational student who was born blind, is one of those girls.
The impact of COVID-19 on learning for girls with disabilities: Marie’s story
Earlier this year, I visited Marie to find out how COVID-19 has affected her learning. Schools had been closed in Sierra Leone since March, so I met Marie at her home in Karene District. She was sitting outside, compiling the notes taken from lessons delivered through the national radio education programme¹. She tells me: “I have accepted the challenge to be educated. Because I am blind, my future will be more difficult without education. Going to school is something I like doing because I strongly believe that education is the key to success.”
Sixteen-year-old Marie attends her local secondary school in Kamakwie where she studies with peers from her own community. She hopes to become a lawyer after completing her education. Marie explains that the learning support that she has received through the Education for All project has kept her committed to her goals. For example, she has received assistive and learning materials including a white cane, a special typewriter and an audio recorder to enable active participation in school. She also regularly receives a hygiene kit, which include sanitary pads, soaps, toothpaste, brush, towels, and antiperspirants. This kit supports healthy hygiene practices and is designed to help remove barriers for adolescent girls like Marie to attend school during menstruation.
During the period of school closures in Sierra Leone, the government established distance learning programmes via radio, based on previous experiences learned through the Ebola crisis. Marie was given a radio, which allowed her to continue her studies from home and access important information relating to the pandemic.
“I want to become a lawyer in the future, as this will help me to advocate and fight for an equal world where everyone is considered.” — Marie
While visiting Marie, I also had an opportunity to catch up with her teacher Alusine, who checks in with Marie on a regular basis. During the pandemic, teachers like Alusine received hand sanitizer and face masks in order to periodically visit vulnerable students when possible and safe. Alusine belongs to the group of 180 teachers across 45 schools in the country who have received specialized training through the Ministry of Basic and Secondary School Education to become certified ‘inclusion champions’. This initiative began in 2016 as part of the European Union-funded Education for All project.
“Before I was selected for the inclusion champion initiative, I had very little knowledge around the concept of inclusion and disabilities and I was faced with many challenges in supporting children with disabilities, like Marie, in my classroom,” Alusine explains. “The mentoring and training to become an inclusion champion has significantly improved my teaching skills and the way I interact with everyone within and outside the school environment, especially those with disabilities. I see a brighter future for Marie, with the hope of her becoming a trained and practicing lawyer.”
Building back equal: an opportunity for radical inclusion to take hold
In order to create an equal world and a society where everyone has the chance to contribute and participate, children with disabilities need to be supported along their social and educational path. This will have a positive impact on breaking the cycle of stigma and discrimination they often face.
A gender-equal and inclusive Sierra Leone is one where all children, regardless of class, ethnicity, tribe, disability, location, gender, reproductive or parenting status, are empowered to live and learn in safety and dignity. The recent shifts in laws and policies towards “radical inclusion” reflect positive change in support of this goal, which will be critical to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on widening inequalities in education. To build a radically inclusive education system, it will be important to address the challenges at multiple levels by working on the ground with local schools and communities to tackle harmful social norms and cultural bias towards gender and disability, whilst also supporting the ongoing inclusive education policy development and advocating for ways to strengthen the education system’s approach to inclusion and gender equality. Only then will we be able to transform our education system into a truly inclusive system that enables all girls with disabilities to fully participate and thrive in education.
COVID-19 has significantly impacted education, particularly for the most vulnerable learners. However, Marie’s story inspires us to find the opportunities within the challenges. Last month, schools reopened once more in Sierra Leone. The time for change is now. I believe that if we work together, we can build back better and more equal.
Sightsavers’ inclusive education initiatives in Sierra Leone have been funded by Irish Aid, the European Commission the UK’s People’s Postcode Lottery. Explore the research report on the impact of the Education for All project in Bombali District, Sierra Leone.
Join Sightsavers’ Equal World campaign and take action to end disability discrimination.
Read the report Still left behind: Pathways to inclusive education for girls with disabilities, a joint research initiative by the UN Girls’ Education Initiative and Leonard Cheshire.
¹ When the pandemic hit Sierra Leone, a distance learning model through local radio stations was introduced by the Ministry of Basic and Secondary School Education with support from the Teaching Service Commission. Through this model, lessons were prepared and delivery by seasoned subject instructors. Feedback sessions were also part of the learning model, with parents and students able to phone-in to the radio station for clarification as and when needed.