Author: Street Child
Type of publication: Study
Date of publication: 2018
Stigmatisation Stigma and discrimination prevail at all levels of society in Sierra Leone and lead to persons with disabilities being shunned and treated like ‘invisible’ citizens. Studies with a focus on the financial barriers to education of children with disabilities (poverty, lack of physical access/ aids) and even exclusion of persons with disabilities in society have not brought home the extent of the extreme stigmatisation faced by persons with disabilities in Sierra Leone.
For children, this means severe bullying (called ‘provocation’ in Sierra Leone) by peers and teachers alike, additional corporal punishment, isolation, neglect, abandonment, abuse at home and unpaid manual labour in lieu of school – all children in focus group discussions and 88% of those interviewed gave bullying and abuse as a barrier to going to school and learning.
The use of stigmatising and discriminatory terms, such as ‘retarded’ and ‘hump-back’ is the norm among teachers, caregivers, children and society as a whole. Participants in interviews tended to suggest more barriers and solutions around stigmatisation than those in focus group discussions, implying that people feel able to be more open about their experience of stigmatisation in the more private interview environment.
The difference between responses given by children with disabilities in focus group discussions and interviews is striking. Even though the focus group discussions did indicate that out-of-school children with disabilities suffer significantly more stigmatisation and are more concerned with it than in-school children with disabilities, all children (in and out of school) in individual interviews gave us markedly more barriers and solutions around stigmatisation especially those not in school. This is clearly visible when comparing the orange columns on the graphs. (See Appendix 5 for all charts.)
A significant additional driver of stigmatisation is that disabilities are often thought to be infectious. For example, it is widely it is it is believed that the saliva of an epileptic person is infectious, if trodden on, as explained by several coordinators during our research. This leads to children being left alone when they have a seizure at school, because no-one wants to go near or touch the child.
Stigma / discrimination at home
We found that some parents feel stigmatised by their child’s disabilities and, in response, increase stigmatisation of children with disabilities by distancing themselves from their son or daughter. Some felt that fathers are more prone to this stigmatisation than mothers. Others, who are lone caregivers, are under too much time and financial pressure to be able to care for children with disabilities adequately. When disabled children are orphaned and taken in by other families, they become more vulnerable to neglect and abuse at home and are more likely to be seen as a burden on household resources.
It was found that children with disabilities are often put to work in farming for the family, instead of going to school. It seemed illogical to researchers that children were deemed unfit for school, but able to undertake manual labour. However, in many cases, this is because the education of children with disabilities is not valued as much as for other children; they are seen as “a great burden” (teacher, 27, Kambia) with no future prospects, so there is little point in investing in their education.
A significant additional driver of stigmatisation is that disabilities are often thought to be infectious
As one 12-year old boy from Bombali said, his parents think children with disabilities are, “A waste of money if they are sent to school”. Children with disabilities told us they want to be self-sufficient when they grow up and not be dependent on their families, but a lack of education will make this very difficult. Not sending children to school because they are a burden is self-perpetuating: they will have little chance of not being viewed as a burden to families, communities and society, if they are unable to enjoy an education like other children do or look forward to higher education opportunities.
We also heard from parents who take their children with disabilities along with them to work in the fields because they feel it is the only way to protect them from harm. They do not trust schools or teachers to look after their children or protect them from bullying, and it seems from the testimonies we gather that their fears are currently justified.
For future research, much deeper insights would be gained by asking whether the siblings of children with disabilities, working the fields instead of going to school, are attending school or not, and whether they are providing manual labour primarily because the family is worried for their disabled children’s safety at school, or because the family is essentially exploiting them as a labour resource.
Stigma / discrimination in school
Bullying at school was given by children in every FGD and 65% of interviews as a reason for children with disabilities not going to school or not being able to learn in class and for dropping out of school. Teachers were identified as the perpetrators of bullying in some cases, and/or failing to prevent or stop bullying by classmates and peers.
Discrimination against children with disabilities is common amongst teachers and children in a number of different ways. For example, children and teachers told us that children with disabilities are often booed at when trying to answer a question in class. A 17-year old girl in Port Loko reported that her teacher tells her to stand up in class if she does not know an answer. Teachers’ participation in and condoning of bullying is seen to exacerbate the issue. Children with disabilities reported being taunted with derogatory name-calling, excluded, physically assaulted, laughed at and mocked.
Teachers were the most common stakeholders to report behaviour of children with disabilities as a problem in class and barrier to learning: ‘playfulness’, ‘too playful’, ‘hottempered’, ‘stubborn’, ‘attention problem’, ‘lack of focus’, ‘troublesome’. Difficult behaviour in children with disabilities is seen as a symptom of disability, rather than as caused by stigma experienced by the child. Any instances could be a direct result of psychological impairments, whether the reaction of children with disabilities to the way they are treated (stigmatisation) or due to discriminatory perceptions, i.e. confirmation bias, or any combination of these. Therefore, these were not added to the stigmatisation category for analysis, in case some were genuinely due to impairments.
Nevertheless, they are useful indicators of potential discrimination and demonstrate that teachers need support to better understand disability perspectives. Shyness, ‘communication’, withdrawal, lack of self-confidence and lack of self-esteem were also identified as barriers to learning. They were not counted under stigmatisation either, but can clearly be caused by it and/ or could be improved with a reduction in stigmatisation.
Teachers’ participation in and condoning of bullying is seen to exacerbate the issue. Children with disabilities reported being taunted with derogatory name-calling, excluded, physically assaulted, laughed at and mocked
A small minority of children with disabilities said they would prefer skills training to school because of not feeling they could cope at school, due to feelings of shame. There were also concerns about age if children were to go back to school after a long absence or having never been to school, as they would have to be placed in classes with much younger children.
Though we were told by all groups of participants that teachers often bully children with disabilities and/ or do not stop bullying by peers, teachers in both the focus group discussions and interviews identified stigmatisation as by far the biggest barrier to education for children with disabilities, and solutions were centred around this, too.
Children and teachers alike requested teacher training and sensitisation (43% children’s focus group discussions; 60% teachers’ focus group discussions; 72% child interviews; 24% teacher interviews). Two teachers in interviews suggested the introduction of laws against bullying and ‘provocative words’. One in-school, 9-year old girl in rural Kambia, feels a solution to bullying would be for her teachers to simply tell the other children not to bully her, “By advising them to stop calling me handicapped girl in class. Based on this, I will feel comfortable.”
Teachers’ focus group discussion
Two teachers suggested assigning ‘leadership roles’ to children with disabilities. One focus group discussion of in-school primary children with disabilities told us their classrooms are filthy and lots of their solutions for improving learning for children with disabilities centred on improving their school environment and facilities. The children’s secondary school counterparts suggested setting up community organisations for persons with disabilities.
Putting these sets of feedback together, both groups of children could be supported to create their own organisations and take control over their environments. This could be beneficial not only in practical terms, but also to boost their self-confidence and self-belief, as well as others’ perceptions of children with disabilities. Teachers wanted information from parents about children with disabilities. This was mentioned in two focus group discussions and indicates a need to build trust and communication between teachers and caregivers.
Intersectional discrimination means that the teachers and caregivers we spoke to (60% focus group discussions; 24% interviewees) felt girls’ gender exacerbates the abuses and difficulties experienced because of disability for example, making them more likely to be targets for sexual abuse, or vulnerable due to lack of safe, accessible toilet facilities.
Stigmatising assumptions and misconceptions are common not just in terms of disability, but also gender, creating another layer of intersectionality. For example, participants told us that girls’ disabilities are made more challenging due to their gender, because, “Girls are weaker”, “Girls are shy” and “Girls can’t learn skills like a blacksmith’s”.
Girls in Sierra Leone are vulnerable to sexual abuse during their unaccompanied journeys to school and back, with disability increasing vulnerability. One chief in rural Bombali explained that his community has a high rate of teenage pregnancy, which he blamed on the children’s long walk to the nearest school, several miles away. He told us that girls with disabilities were disproportionately represented among those who had become pregnant and that pregnancy increases the likelihood that a child will become a victim of early marriage. It is a complex situation in which vulnerabilities and abuses are noticeably exacerbated by disability.
Stigmatising assumptions and misconceptions are common not just in terms of disability, but also gender, creating another layer of intersectionality
A few respondents also felt that children with disabilities were discriminated against further, if they were from a particular tribe. Anecdotally, we know this to be the Fula tribe. Known as business people, the Fula are apparently starting to shift on sending girls to high school having traditionally removed them from school at 13, but still have a reputation for not valuing formal education. This lingering perception of the tribe could, of course, be the result of prejudice: Fula people would need to be consulted on whether they are culturally more likely not to send children with disabilities to school and how best to address the phenomenon, before any work could be done on tackling it.
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