Keeping Sierra Leone's Children Off the Streets
Since 2008, Street Child of Sierra Leone has been working to get kids off the streets, into schools and reconciled with their families. Sierra Leone which ranks at 181 out 188 on the Human Development Index has been pushed into poverty due to years of civil war and exacerbated by the Ebola outbreak in 2014. In 2010, the organisation started to focus more on tackling upstream issues that push children to leave their homes and live on the streets in the first place.
“We realised that access to education was their biggest challenge. Parents would have to send their children from the rural communities into urban cities. When they get into urban cities the chances are high that these children will end up on the streets. So gradually we started working with communities to improve their educational system so that children will remain within their communities and then stay up till junior secondary school where at that stage we think they are much stronger to move into urban spaces and live with other family members.”
Even though their programs and support to communities are predominantly around access to education and improving learning outcomes, Street Child of Sierra Leone is still working with out-of-school children in urban settings. With out-of-school children or those at risk of dropping out, the focus is on getting them back to school and keeping them there. Through a survey, Street Child of Sierra Leone identifies the urban communities within which it works and rural communities are selected based on their performance at the national exams. Low performance is an indicator that the children are not adequately supported.
The DevDispatch talked with a passionate team from Street Child of Sierra Leone that included Kelfa Kargbo, John M Kargbo, Sia Lajaku-Williams and Mohammed Sheku Turay. They shared with us that there are common indicators in the family setting that tell the likelihood that a child might take to the street.
For each scenario, we are addressing the issue of what is affecting learning outcomes:
Is it the schools that are not conducive?
Do they not have the right teachers?
Do the communities not value education?
Why are the children not in school?
Then there is the issue of Income poverty. Is it because the families can’t afford the cost of education?
Can we work with the families to provide them an income base so that they can support their children to go back and remain in school?
Street Child of Sierra Leone works with child welfare committees and gets referrals from community members and schools. With these referrals, the organisation deploys its social workers who through community outreach, engage with the children on the street to understand their situation as well as kids who are on the verge of leaving home and living on the streets. The social workers provide psychosocial support as well as mediation services for the children and their families.
What is peculiar about Street Child of Sierra Leone’s response to out-of-school children or children at risk of living on the streets is that they do not resort to a blanket solution. Solutions are designed around the specific situation and need of each child and their family, therefore tackling the root cause of the issue.
“We view every child as a unique individual and the issues affecting the child will not be the same for two different children. We have children who do not need financial support because the initial reason for separation/dropping out wasn’t financial issues but has to do with other psychosocial issues so we provide psychosocial support. If income poverty was the barrier to education, we provide these families with family business grants. We have another department which works with vulnerable families to develop their business skills and then we support them with cash to roll out their business plans.”
Their intervention works in phases. This begins with an assessment of the welfare of the child and followed by either reuniting the child with their family or making arrangements to get them back in school. Once the child is settled in, the next stage is a vulnerability analysis to determine the root cause of the separation from the family or the school dropout. Where it is an issue of income, the business team works with the family to determine business opportunities in the community. Once a business is identified, the family is supported for the next 20 to 24 weeks with finance and training. Another assessment is conducted to gauge whether the risk of the child being on the street or dropping out of school is significantly reduced. If this is the case, Street Child of Sierra Leone begins to pull support in a year and allows the family to run independently.
The Street Child of Sierra Leone team shared with us that for 2020, their focus was to continue to support the communities they were already working in, training teachers, conducting family visitations and monitoring the business programs under their support. With the pandemic, restrictions on social gatherings and closure of schools, Street Child of Sierra Leone had to do a lot of restructuring and reorganising of their activities. In Sierra Leone, schools abruptly closed in March 2020 and this paused all the education related activities. Mobilising community support also became a challenge.
“Our culture is one of friendliness and laughter. Shaking hands and hugging is something that is very common with our team members and the communities we work with. So it was a new strain in the way we interact with our beneficiaries trying to social distance, putting on face masks, no handshakes – there are a lot of restrictions that took us time to adjust to and it’s also affected the activities we had lined up. We started postponing training – in fact one thing that happened is we had a training for social workers on gender mainstreaming and in fact, the week that activity was planned was when we had an inter-district lockdown announced. And in this training social workers were supposed to move from one district to another, this is an activity that happens once a year and we had to cancel that. There were a lot of follow on activities that hinged on the implementation of that particular training, so we couldn’t carry on with a whole lot of activities.”
Despite these restrictions, Street Child of Sierra Leone did not stop supporting its communities. With courage and resilience, they sought out new ways to continue to support livelihoods and promote learning outcomes. Their strong relationships with local governments and community leaders came in very handy in educating communities about the coronavirus and how to stay safe. When the government of Sierra Leone started to run lessons on radio stations to keep children learning during the pandemic, Street Child of Sierra Leone took up the task of raising awareness about these lessons within the communities it worked in.
Street Child of Sierra Leone is now beginning to experiment with eLearning in remote communities through pre-recorded lessons in memory cards distributed to households along with bluetooth players. The project called “Last Mile Learning” will be piloted in Eastern Sierra Leone. Each family would have a record player and the lessons would be distributed to all of these families. The children will be taught and supported by the teacher on how to play them and listen to the lessons.
Street Child of Sierra Leone is however worried that the pandemic and associated restrictions will affect the progress made by a number of children and may even lead to more children dropping out of school and taking to the streets.
“Of course, in rural areas the biggest thing here is many children have been out of the classroom for too long and in this time, they have had no contact with books generally no contact with any material for learning. In a few communities I have seen one or two girls given away to marriage. Girls are really at risk even in bigger towns with the rise in teen pregnancies and we are afraid it will affect the return to school when they reopen. Many boys have taken to doing businesses such as riding commercial motorbikes and I wonder how many of them will be willing to leave those businesses to come back to school. This long break in school has definitely created a lot of problems but we can only measure the magnitude of the problems when schools reopen.”
Despite these challenges, Street Child of Sierra Leone is uniquely positioned to continue to support families and uphold its commitment to the communities it serves. It has been fortunate to have secured funding and the flexibility to repurpose its agreements with donors towards activities that support its activities during this pandemic.
However, a lot of work will need to be done to identify children at risk of living on the streets once the restrictions are lifted. Street Child of Sierra Leone is taking this time to prepare for the mammoth task ahead.
To learn more about their work, please visit their website.
Images by Street Child of Sierra Leone.