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Sightsavers from the field

Voices from Sierra Leone: The real experiences of girls with disabilities at school

December 2020
Children sit closely together outside.

In Sierra Leone, children with disabilities are often left behind and considered not worth educating. For girls, the discrimination can be two-fold.

Girls with disabilities often struggle to get to schools that are far from their homes. At school, they often face a lack of accessible toilets and hygiene assistance, while special devices and services are often given to boys first.

As part of the Education for All project, Sightsavers has worked with 45 schools across the country, to ensure more than 800 girls and boys with disabilities can gain an education.

To ensure our work was as effective as possible, we trained teachers and parents of children with disabilities as community researchers to interview children with disabilities, and those in a similar situation, to identify the barriers that were preventing them from accessing an inclusive, quality education.

The problem

Education icon.

More girls than boys are excluded from education

Icon of a wheelchair.

A lack of accessible toilets and hygiene assistance

Icon of a mobile phone.

Special devices and services are often given to boys first

Icon of an open book.

Girls’ handwriting is often mocked

Here’s what they told us at the start of the project

“The other children always mock her, sometimes seriously. They ask her to not sit by them, because they believe that they will also be afflicted by the same problem. When she gets home, she cries and doesn’t want to go back.” Tenneh*, mother of a child with disabilities

“I want to be somebody. With education I have a brighter future.” Ibrahim*, male student with disabilities

I would like a toilet for girls that I can use
Adama*, female student with disabilities
Children play on a playing field in front of a long, low school building

“Some people believe that these children have nothing to offer. They think they should be excluded from schooling activities because, at the end of the day, they can’t achieve anything.” Aminata*, mother of a child with disabilities

“Sometimes disabled children feel isolated when their colleagues run away from them, due to their physical appearance or their situation. Some children reject their colleagues.” Abdul*, teacher

 

We are not taught how to teach these kids. We need intensive training. We also need school materials.
Edward*, teacher
A student uses a braille machine, resting on a school desk. Only the student's hands are shown.

“I cannot walk well, and people laugh at me because of my physical problem.” Fatou*, female student with disabilities

“They need accessible toilets. The children find it hard to use the toilets the [non-disabled] children are using.” Michael*, father of a child with disabilities

A hearing aid would make me less shy
Titi*, female student with disabilities
Two schoolboys, arm in arm, walk down a dirt track by the side of a road.

Here’s what they told us towards the end of the project

“There is now a great sense of motivation among the disabled children. They believe that disability is not inability.” Doris*, teacher

“The coming of this project has made our children feel like they belong and [they] have seen themselves as humans. In previous years they have not been treated as if they are humans, so [that] alone is a development.” Marai*, mother of a child with disabilities

“At first, disabled children were seen as a lost cause and were discouraged, but through the intervention of this organisation the parents have got hope and have realised that their children can be successful. Disability does not mean the children cannot be successful.” Musa*, teacher

 

We can now identify disabled children and we can now deliver lessons with them in mind.
Sahr*, teacher
Children play in front of a long, low school building, with lush green hills in the background.

“We have seen massive changes in our children. Before this time they were reluctant to go to school, but the inception of the project has made them willing, and for me that is a very big change.” Mariama*, mother of a child with disabilities.

“I like to be in school because every day I learn more things and it will help me in the future.” Joseph*, male student with disabilities

“I like coming to school and making friends. The encouragement I receive from teachers and fellow students is why I like coming to school.” Hassanatou*, male student with disabilities

Now our classmates mingle with us. They will play with us and we are glad because of that.
Lucee*, female student with disabilities
A line of schoolchildren stand in a school playing field. Only their feet and lower legs are shown. All are wearing blue trousers and black shoes.

How our work made a difference

Through the Education for All project, Sightsavers and partners took practical steps, such as training teachers and physically adapting schools to make them more accessible. We also sought to change attitudes in the country – something that turned out to have a positive effect.

At the beginning of the project, participants noted that children with disabilities were often seen as a lost cause and were actively discouraged from attending school. By the end of the programme, all participants described children being treated with more kindness, understanding and respect.

We took steps to ensure that girls with disabilities could access an education. This included setting up a gender action plan that was carried out by teachers and members of local mothers’ clubs. We also distributed hygiene kits containing sanitary pads, soaps, toothpaste, brush, towels, and antiperspirants, designed to help remove barriers for girls to attend school during menstruation.

The project was a huge success. It showed that, through a mixture of practical support and advocacy, children with disabilities can gain a much brighter future.

Sightsavers’ inclusive education initiatives in Sierra Leone have been funded by Irish Aid, the European Commission and the UK’s People’s Postcode Lottery.

Explore the full research report on the impact of the Education for All project in Bombali District, Sierra Leone, or read a short summary of this research.

*All names have been changed

A girl uses a typewriter while wearing a face mask.

Marie’s story

Learn how we’re supporting Marie, who was among the first set of children supported through the project, to fulfil her dream of becoming a lawyer.

Read Marie's story

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