In 2013, Angela Stoddard took part in the ICS programme. Her placement was in Sierra Leone, below, she recounts her experiences and interactions with Human Rights, particuarly Disability Rights.
Angela has written this entry for us as part of International Blog Action Day. Follow @blogactionday #IBAD2013 and #HumanRights to join the conversation.
From The Moon and Back
The first article of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:
‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’
In the UK the uptake of the UN Human Rights Declaration is clear in all aspects of life; especially in the area of disability. When I go to my local supermarket there are ramps for disabled access. When I apply for a job, there is a usually a section where you can ask for special assistance in order to be able to participate in an interview. Disabled rights and access is part of life in the UK.
I have recently returned from living in Sierra Leone, West Africa, for 3 months on a DFID (Department of Foreign and International Development) sponsored project called International Citizen Service (ICS) with Restless Development. The best way I can describe my experience is by saying, ‘I feel like I have just come back from the moon!’ Life in Sierra Leone is similar, but different in so many ways that it feels like a different world!
There are many aspects of life that the UK can learn from Sierra Leone. A key one is religious tolerance; Sierra Leone is known for being the most religiously tolerant country in the world. Inter-marriage between Muslims and Christians is common and often I would speak to a group of siblings who would point out their different religions, ‘Muslim, Muslim, Christian, Muslim,’ with a smile and indifference that this could ever be an issue. On the issue of religion Sierra Leone is certainly following the first article of the UN declaration.
However on the issue of disability this is not the case. Despite Sierra Leone having the highest proportion of amputees per population of any country in the world as a consequence of the civil war, and polio victims being a common sight with one or two weak and thin legs that are unable to support their bodies, disabled people are marginalised in a largely unsympathetic society.
During the ICS project I visited the Bo Southern Region Users Group which aims to promote disability rights and support. The lack of understanding to their need was clear when their request for a ground floor meeting room was turned down in favour of a wealthier group who had also made a booking. The disabled members of the group, adult men and women, were forced to abandon their crutches and wheelchairs and crawl without dignity in order to reach the top floor room that their meeting had been allocated. It was a sad sight to see.
During my time in Sierra Leone I heard many similar stories. Doctor Musa, the only Occupational Therapist serving the 6 million populations, spoke to me at his small ward at Bo Government Hospital, about how a mother may say she has 6 children when she actually has 7. She won’t count the disabled child as one of her own, and may keep them indoors out of sight to the extent that they become far paler than other people.
The mayor of Bo, the Right Honourable Harold Tucker, is keen to promote care for the mentally disabled after caring for his mother who is a sufferer. Even for the mayor, however, funding for projects and finding sufficiently qualified professionals in the field is difficult. He had to enlist the assistance of a Ghanaian professional to write a report for the City Council; there are no University programs to study disability issues or care in Sierra Leone.
Doctor Musa studied in Kenya, and is one of the few in Sierra Leone who has returned from foreign study and the prospect of higher paid jobs with greater facilities and recognition back to his homeland where there is desperate need. He has the only ward in the hospital that is not connected to the back up generator when the electricity cuts out which just shows the perceived lack of importance of his field of care.
Above: Myself giving a community member chance to address key stakeholders
My team at Restless Development decided to act in order to address the root cause of the problem; lack of awareness. We worked with all the key stakeholders, including the mayor and the staff under Dr Musa, and I went on SLBC Government radio, to promote projects aimed to address this. The one I am most proud of is our ‘Showcase Your Ability’ race for the disabled in the centre of Bo. We were granted police assistance to close the roads for a course stretching from the Mobil petrol station on Sowa Road all the way to Coronation Field Park. On this day the medal ceremony was solely for the disabled participants who were the champions. It was a joy to see most of the city’s population come out to line the streets and cheer for the participants– even those using wheelchairs and crutches – who were as competitive as any able bodied individual.
Left: A Pett race winner(A pett is a hands only powered tricycle)
Though I have travelled to many countries, this was the first time I had really lived in a foreign country and a community with a wholly different culture to my own. Though no one culture is right or wrong I really hope that my team and I have set an additional wheel in motion towards ensuring disabled people are treated as ‘equal in dignity and rights’. Change is happening slowly. One day I hope to walk into the Immigration Office in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone, and see the top floor room with full access for the disabled, like any office in the UK. One day I am sure I will.
Angela Stoddard. Please contact at a.c.stoddard9 [at] gmail.com
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