Three years ago, 38-year old, Eddie Bayoh, a father of three children suffered an eye infection, which resulted in him losing sight in both eyes. As a father of three, with no source of livelihood, Bayoh started begging on the street. He pulled his 12-year old son out of class three to lead him through the traffic and markets of Freetown.
Bayoh lived in Waterloo, in the western rural district of Sierra Leone. Together with other disabled persons, they travel to the central business district in Freetown where they spend the whole day following car owners, drivers and passengers to beg for their livelihood.
“This is my eldest son, Lansana. He is now 15-years old. He stopped going to school and started assisting me because I could no longer pay school fees for him. If you don’t come out on the street, we will have no one to assist us with even a cup of rice,” he explained. Life is a constant struggle for a person with any sort of disability, especially so for those living in Sierra Leone.
The 2015 Population and Housing Census indicate that 93,129 persons are disabled, that is 1.3% of the population of Sierra Leone. Most of these people with disabilities are not well capacitated to live an independent life.
Some children of these disabled people, as well as those who have lost contact with families are now living on the street. Some of the children are used to lead the blind. Others push wheelchair users.
“Most of them are poor people. Due to the limited economic opportunities in the country, they use their children to beg on the street,” revealed Saa Lamin Kortequee the Executive Secretary of the National Commission for Persons with Disability.
He noted, this has psycho-social impact on the children. “They grow up believing that the only way to survive is through begging. They also become psychologically disabled.” These children, especially girls, are also prone to sexual abuse and they lose the opportunity to be educated.
The National Commission for Children (NCC) was established by the Child Rights Act 2007 to monitor and coordinate the activities of the government and other institutions relating to the affairs of children. They consider children as begging companions as child labour. Addie Valcarcel is the Advocacy and Communication Coordinator of NCC. She said, it deprives the children who are involved of their own childhood.”
There are no statistics on the number of street child beggars. Yet, the government of Sierra Leone is aware of the state of these children. The Deputy Director of Children’s Affairs at the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs (MSWGCA), Joyce B. Kamara, described the situation as an appalling one.
She categorised these children into three groups: First, those who due to poor parenting go to the street on a daily basis to beg (some of them are employed by these disabled persons on the agreement that they will share the proceeds at the end of the day). Second, there are those children who abscond from home for about a week or two; their parents know that their children are out there somewhere. These spend some time on the street and then return home. The third group are those children brought from the provinces with the promise that they will go to school. On their arrival they are disappointed as their guardians use them as traders or stone miners. These children get tired with the maltreatment they are getting and decide to go and live permanently on the street.
Kamara said the government in partnership with Street Child, UNICEF and other child protection partners are planning to do a head count of children on the street.
There are policies, as well as statutory instruments, to address the situation. However, there are still many challenges:
Firstly, there are no sustainable programs for persons with disability. Most of the NGO projects have timelines. They are unable to offer persons with disability adequate skills training that will enable them to live independently. Because they are not adequately trained they sell the kits and go back to the street.
Another challenge noted by the Ministry is the government does not have safe homes where these children can stay and get interim care. The government depends on NGOs. The issue of poor parenting is another problem.
The NCC is recommending that a lot of attention be given to persons with disability who have children considering the fact that they are jobless and their livelihood is limited.
“We do not have the mandate to do direct implementation and bring drastic change; we are advocating that some form of increased attention be given to these children,” Valcarcel said.
Kortequee also said that persons with disability should change their mind-set regarding their source of livelihood. Because the children have sympathy for their parents, they go with them to the street, added Kortequee.
The new President, Julius Maada Bio, promised free education for every child during his administration. “The free compulsory education should ensure that all children are in school. Government should come out with a strong policy so no child is on the street begging,” Kortequee recommends.
Awoko Monday April 16, 2018.