During the Ebola epidemic, Handicap International’s inclusive education program in Sierra Leone switched into emergency mode. Staff and community based volunteers ensured that the 1,700 children with disabilities in the program knew how to protect themselves from Ebola and continued to learn even when schools were closed.
As the Ebola epidemic raged in Sierra Leone, the government took drastic steps to prevent the spread of the disease, banning public gatherings and closing schools. While the school closures likely helped to prevent Ebola infections, keeping children out of the classroom meant students would fall behind. Also, with no central place to gather, the students might not hear essential messages about how to protect themselves from Ebola.
The 1,700 children with disabilities that Handicap International supports through its inclusive education program were already fighting against marginalization, so the stakes were even higher with schools closed.
“It was horrible for the children,” says Fred Joe Feika, Handicap International’s Inclusive Education Program Manager. “Many of the students with disabilities were already behind in their schooling, because their parents had kept them home for years. Now they were losing almost an entire school year due to Ebola.”
Handicap International’s inclusive education program, which, prior to Ebola, had focused on enrolling children with disabilities in school and providing them with mobility devices and other support, switched gears. The inclusive education team mobilized its community-based rehabilitation volunteers (CBRVs), trusted members of the communities where Handicap International works, to reach out to the children in their homes.
The first priority: making sure the children and families knew how to prevent Ebola. “At first, my work was difficult because many people did not want to believe that Ebola was real,” said Sheku Kamara, a CBRV in Port Loko district. “However, we developed a dialogue system with rules and regulations that made sense to the people, and they listened. We focused on the importance of hygiene and gave the families kits with washing materials. I’m very proud to say that none of the children in my area got sick. We kept Ebola away.”
Next, the team made sure the children could continue learning even though school was closed. The Sierra Leone Ministry of Education launched radio-learning program so that kids could follow the lessons for their grade level by tuning in to the radio. However, in the extremely poor, rural areas where Handicap International works, most parents could not afford to buy radios or batteries.
“Handicap International decided to procure radios, and we distributed them to our students so they could have a chance to catch up on their lessons,” says Mohamed Bangura, the Inclusive Education District Officer for Port Loko. “We asked the parents to encourage their children to participate.”
When schools finally reopened, many parents did not send their children back. Ebola was still present in the country at the time, and the parents of children with disabilities had already been reluctant to send their children to school before Ebola. There is a pervasive belief in Sierra Leone, as in many other poor countries, that it is a waste of resources to educate people with disabilities.
“We embarked on a massive back-to-school campaign with the help of our community volunteers to make sure that our children returned and that their parents felt safe,” says Bangura. The CBRVs followed up with parents and distributed back-to-school supplies like notebooks, pencils, and even new shoes. “We continued with the Ebola prevention efforts at the schools. We installed hand-washing facilities and gave the teachers thermometers so they could check everyone’s temperature before being allowed inside the school building. At the schools, we continued to deliver our messages about how to prevent Ebola. We wanted to give them hope.”
Not all of Handicap International’s students have returned yet, but the CBVRs continue to encourage their parents. Sadly, some students lost one or both parents to the disease and now are being looked after by other relatives. A few female students also became pregnant. During the Ebola outbreak, there was a noted increase in sexual violence and exploitation of girls, according to a report compiled by NGOs working in Sierra Leone.[i]
With the World Health Organization’s Nov. 7, declaration of the end of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Handicap International is transitioning its inclusive education program back to normal activities.
“Our project, which is part of the Girls Education Challenge, a joint program with Plan International and several other local and international NGOs, has had its funding extended, so we can continue to enroll more children with disabilities in school,” says Feika. “We have mainly been focused on getting children with physical disabilities into school, but we’re planning to extend our services to children with other types of disabilities soon.”