Marie was among the first set of children supported through the project, which works to ensure children with disabilities – especially girls, who are more often excluded from education and experience different societal pressures and barriers – are able to attend school and achieve their full potential.
Marie was born blind and comes from a large family with six sisters and seven brothers. Her parents primarily work as farmers. In 2008, she moved in with her aunt, also called Marie, who supported her to attend a specialist school for blind children in a neighbouring district in 2009. Later, she enrolled at a mainstream school alongside children with and without disabilities, in her home district.
“After visiting my brother [Marie’s father] in 2008 I noticed the level of neglect Marie was facing, [so] I asked him to allow me to bring her to stay with me,” Marie’s aunt explains. “Over the years we have been living together, Marie has been a source of inspiration to many children within the community and especially my kids. Her zeal and strong commitment in school have been deeply admired by so many.”
COVID-19 has caused schools to close in Sierra Leone, so I met Marie at her home. She was sitting outside with her teacher Alusine, compiling the notes taken from lessons delivered through the national radio education programme. She tells me: “Ever since I moved from my parents’ house to stay with my aunt, her support and encouragement have been my inspiration. Going to school is something I like doing because I strongly believe that education is the key to success. I have accepted the challenge to be educated; since I am blind, without education, my future would be more difficult.”
“My schooling would have been more difficult over the past five years without this support,” Marie adds. As part of the Education for All project, she tells us that she has been given assistive and learning materials including a white cane, a typewriter, coloured card and A4 paper, audio recorders and batteries; and hygiene kits which include sanitary pads, bathing soaps, toothpaste, brush, towels, anti-perspirants and hand sanitisers. And as her school has been closed due to COVID-19, she has also been given handwashing buckets, soap, and a radio set and one packed battery.
Marie mentions she loves football and is her favourite game because it helps people to stay fit and healthy. She also tells me her aspirations: “I want to be become a lawyer in the future,” she explains, “as this will help me to advocate and fight for an equal world where everyone is considered.”
Having learned of Marie’s commitment to studying and her determination to succeed, I ask her aunt how the support Marie’s receiving is making a difference. “Supporting and providing food basic necessities to keep Marie in school and make her happy remain my priority,” she explains. “But my low financial strength remains my greatest difficulty in meeting all her needs.
“The support has reduced the stress and burden I normally faced when schools are about to resume. It’s helped ensure Marie’s education continues. We are indeed grateful for all you have done for her.
“I want to see Marie become successful and be able to take care of herself, her younger sisters and brothers and me when I am old.”
While visiting Marie, I caught up with Alusine who has been teaching at a local school for the past seven years and has been Marie’s teacher since she enrolled. He is one of the 180 teachers across 45 schools in the country who we’ve trained to become ‘inclusion champions’ and has been provided with hand sanitiser and face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Before the Education for All project started in 2016, I had little or no knowledge around the concept of inclusion and disabilities and I was faced with challenges in supporting children with disabilities in the 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.
“My personal hope is to become a senior educational administrator and I see a brighter future for Marie, with the hope of her becoming a trained and practising lawyer.”
Our inclusive education project has been really successful – we initially set ourselves the target of enrolling 350 children with disabilities into schools across Sierra Leone, but in fact, we’ve exceeded that target and supported 432 girls and 394 boys. Compared to before the project started, there are now more children with disabilities enrolled in schools and many have successfully transitioned through different stages of their education, which is brilliant.
In order to create an equal world and a society where everyone has the chance to compete, children with disabilities need to be supported along their social and educational path because this will bring an end to the cycle of stereotyping they often face. I’m particularly proud that through the project, people’s perceptions of children and specifically girls with disabilities within our communities have improved.
I am also proud that we’re not only working on the ground with local schools, but we’re developing inclusive education policies and advocating to the government to strengthen the schooling system to include all children.
I am privileged and proud to be part of the process. I hope we will be able see policy change that can transform, support and ensure girls with disabilities have equal access to quality education.
The Education for All project was by initially funded by the European Commission and is now funded by People’s Postcode Lottery.
Eric Musa is a project officer for Sightsavers’ inclusive education work and is based in Sierra Leone.
Sightsavers staff provide a first-hand insight into the five ways we’re making sure children with disabilities aren’t left behind during the COVID-19 pandemic.Supporting children’s learning during lockdown
Dr Moira Chinthambi received a Sightsavers scholarship to train as an ophthalmologist and now works on our inclusive eye health programme in Malawi.
Alinafe Zaina is studying clinical ophthalmology in Malawi with the help of a scholarship provided by Sightsavers’ inclusive eye health programme.
We’re working with partners in Cameroon and Senegal to ensure people with disabilities are able to take part in every stage of the political process.