By Wendy Morton MP:
In a country where children are educated by law until they are 16, it is easy to forget that learning is not a right extended globally but rather in many cases, a privilege. A privilege too often interrupted by poverty.
A recent visit to Freetown in Sierra Leone was a stark reminder of that. While the country has been Ebola free for a year, the impact continues to be felt. And no group more so than children. Thousands were orphaned and forced out of education. Schools closed and in some cases are yet to re-open.
Of course, barriers to education existed before the epidemic. However, back in 2013 - when I first travelled to Sierra Leone with the Conservative Party International Social Action Project - the country was seeking to become a transformed nation with middle-income status. It was starting to see progress tackling post-conflict high youth unemployment, corruption and weak national cohesion, as well as poverty and poor infrastructure.
Returning with the project in September this year, the devastating impact Ebola has had was clear.
I accompanied social workers from Street Child to Kissy Bomeh dumpsite where the charity is doing great work to identify Ebola-impacted households with young children who are not in school. As a member of the International Development Committee I have visited some of the world’s poorest nations but rarely have I seen such extreme poverty up close.
I spoke to one woman living in a temporary shelter on the edge of the dump with seven young children. She explained her greatest fear was not the dangers faced by her family from spending their days working on the hazardous dumpsite; but from the road which ran directly behind her shelter. She feared a car would crash into them while they slept.
When your energy is so focused on surviving it is easy to understand why children miss out on going to school. That is why the support offered by Street Child social workers is essential. During Ebola, more than 6,000 impacted households received small family business grants combined with social care, business support and savings advice.
On the other side of the dump, I was introduced to two families already receiving such support. The contrast was stark. One woman had just returned home after selling out of porridge which she made and sold every morning to people on their way to work. Her neighbour was in the process of getting her daughter ready for school – a significant moment only made possible through the support of the social workers.
Some may be tempted to question why the families are still living on the edge of the dumpsite, why they have not been relocated. But that would mean taking these people away from the area and community they know. So instead, Street Child helps empower families to lift themselves out of extreme poverty through generating sustainable incomes. The results speak for themselves; typically, two years after all support has ceased, over 85 per cent of these family businesses are still successful and children are still in school. In Sierra Leone Street Child financially assisted more than 18,000 children impacted by Ebola back into school.
It is not just Ebola that has prevented children from receiving an education in Sierra Leone. On a visit with the social workers to Kroo Bay slum I saw a school flooded from the previous night’s rainfall – rainfall that would have felt relatively light from the security of a permanent shelter, yet had the power to damage a school to the point where it cannot be used.
These things demonstrate just how important the work done by Street Child is. While the social workers may support families to overcome the obstacles in actually getting children to school, if at the end of that there is no school for them to attend, or teachers to help them learn, it is all for nothing.
Through the work of organisations like Street Child much has been done, but there is still much to do. Like many developing countries Sierra Leone faces a learning crisis. The need for assistance and support remains.
Wendy Morton, Member of Parliament for Aldridge-Brownhills, visited Sierra Leone in September with the Conservative Party International Social Action Project.
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