Girls with disabilities in Sierra Leone: from ‘the devil’s work’ to Girl Power

Emma Frobisher is a junior researcher at the African Studies Centre Leiden. She has written this blog as a member of the Collaborative Research Group Collaboration and Contestation in Words: Dialogues and disputes in African social realities.

“Society makes you feel like you are a disabled. There is [a] barrier between us and them. They don’t recognise us, they think we are useless. We are not treated as humans!”

This sense of frustration and despondency, as expressed by a nineteen year-old girl with a physical disability she had acquired from childhood polio, is very common among the girls with disabilities I came to know during my stay in Sierra Leone from June to August 2016. Though I was aware of the existence of considerable social stigma around disability before I arrived, I was unprepared for the emotional challenges I would experience as I grew to understand the level of hardships confronting these girls on a daily basis.

Civil war
Incidences of disability are exacerbated in Sierra Leone as a result of the brutal civil war that lasted from 1991 to 2002. Thousands were wounded, around 27,000 people had at least one of their limbs amputated, and basic healthcare provisions including childhood vaccinations halted during the eleven-year wartime period leading to a sharp increase in debilitating diseases like polio.

The devil’s work
The stigma surrounding disability is deeply entrenched in Sierra Leone, with a widely held belief that it is caused by a parent’s sin or the work of the devil. When a baby is born with a disability, families sometimes leave their babies in the forests, believing that the child must be returned to the demon spirits where they came from. Others hide them from public view or abandon them altogether. There is a common belief that those with disabilities are unfit for work or education. Many end up living on the streets having to engage in activities to satisfy the basic needs for their short-term survival, including begging, theft and sex work.

Social exclusion
This causes a common perception that people with disabilities are trouble-makers, and that their behaviour is the cause of their disability. When people with disabilities defend themselves against abuse, they are often met with the retort, “Na dat mehk God mehk u so” [Your bad attitude is why God gave you a disability]. They are a figure for mockery, often subjected to deliberate provocation and denied service by shopkeepers who believe they are there to beg or that serving them will bring bad luck. Overall, for people with disabilities in Sierra Leone, the picture is one of extreme social exclusion.

Words as an instrument
The ASCL’s Collective Research Group Collaboration and Contestation in Words; Dialogues and Disputes in African social Realities intends to draw attention to such stories. In African societies today, growing inequality and continued exclusion due to ethnicity, gender, religion, disability or sexual orientation give rise to both contestation and cooperation for social change. On the one hand the public is being addressed by social movements that campaign for an improvement of social justice, equality, rights and inclusiveness; on the other hand, the same public is drawn into a fierce verbal fight for a reordering of identities, of belonging, and exclusiveness. This CRG aims to investigate the manner in which written and spoken words are turned into an instrument by which social groups and organizations are moved to actions to attain certain desired goals or conversely to impede others from attaining their goals and objectives.

Gender inequalities
For girls with disabilities in Sierra Leone, their situation can involve severe hardships. Like many countries in West Africa, Sierra Leone has patriarchal cultural roots whereby significant gender inequalities dominate both the private and public sphere. In addition, the belief that children are to be ‘seen and not heard’ in the presence of elders is socially entrenched, leading many young people to routinely feel voiceless in society. Therefore, girls with disabilities sit at an intersection of triple exclusion, based on their age, gender and (dis)ability.

Girl Power
My research concentrates on the work of a local disability-rights NGO based in the capital city of Freetown, called One Family People, which from 2011 to 2015 implemented the Girl Power project. This was a gender empowerment project for girls and young women (both with and without disabilities) which aimed to reduce the rates of sexual violence, early marriage and teen pregnancy, and to increase girls’ educational and economic opportunities. The project was implemented in partnership with International Child Development Initiatives (iCDi). In the project, One Family People made a particular effort to ensure that girls with disabilities participated in the programme’s activities alongside other girls: in the ‘V-Girls’ after-school self-help community groups, in the music and drama clubs, and at events where they spoke out about girls’ rights to audiences and power-holders. The purpose of my study was to investigate what the Girl Power project achieved for the girls with disabilities who participated.

The study identified three main outcomes as a result of the participation of girls with disabilities in the Girl Power project. Firstly, taking part in the project helped to increase their self-esteem and self-confidence. Often, people with disabilities distance themselves from social situations believing they are not worthy of joining in. However, the Girl Power project enabled girls with disabilities to learn new skills to speak out as vocal and capacitated young women, and because of the project, they have begun to regard themselves more positively.

Secondly, the project helped to foster a greater sense of inclusion and brought new social ties for girls with disabilities. Their daily reality is typically one of discrimination and exclusion, but in the Girl Power project, they frequently interacted with other girls. This helped to reduce their sense of segregation from the community, and friendships have formed where they previously would not have existed, bringing significant improvements to the happiness and mental wellbeing of girls with disabilities.

Changing mind-sets
Finally, the Girl Power project has had an important impact on sensitising the communities to understand that girls with disabilities are not so different after all. For many people in the community, witnessing a group of girls with disabilities as capable and confident group participants was an eye opener. This has helped to change their mind-sets that having a disability does not always equate to vagrancy, destitution and weakness, and it has meant that girls with disabilities were treated with respect from the communities for the first time.

Disability is not inability
The study demonstrates the importance of providing a platform for people with disabilities where they can present themselves to the public in a positive manner. As well as having beneficial effects on the individuals themselves, this also contributes to raising awareness in the community that ‘disability is not inability’. Creating a more positive public attitude towards people with disabilities is a necessary precursor before more specific disability advocacy can take place in the future, when it will be necessary to have public opinion on the same side as the disability community.

This research is part of a co-operative project of the African Studies Centre Leiden and Liliane Foundation, Breaking down Barriers to Inclusion. Building Capacity for Lobby and Advocacy for Children With Disabilities. The project aims to build upon the knowledge and capacity of Liliane Foundation and its global partners in the field of advocacy for children with disabilities in Africa. Visit the project website.

Some of the data for this study were gathered through participatory photography research methods with young people with speech and hearing impairments. See their photographs.

Top illustration: Lady S. of One Familiy People.

This post has been written for the ASCL Africanist Blog. Would you like to stay updated on new blog posts? Subscribe here! Would you like to comment? Please do! The ASCL reserves the right to edit, shorten or reject submitted comments.


social exclusion
patriarchal societies
girls empowerment
Sierra Leone

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