There are about 2,753,000 million children living in Sierra Leone out of a population of some 5,700,000 and around 70% of them live in poverty, particularly in rural areas. According to the United Nations, Sierra Leone has the world’s highest mortality rates for children under the age of five and few children can expect to live longer than 56 years. Literacy rates for Sierra Leone boys is about 46.9% but drops significantly to just 24.4% for female children. These facts are disturbing in themselves however should be seen against the background of the Sierra Leone civil war which, when it finally ended in early 2002, had left over a third of the country's population displaced, tens of thousands dead, infrastructure including thousands of schools just piles of rubble and the nation left emotionally scarred for generations not least the country's children, thousands of whom had been forced, under pain of death, to become killer child soldiers.
When a civil war ends its not just a matter of signing a peace accord, the real challenge is how to integrate those who have brutalised and slaughtered back into the same communities. The child soldiers of Sierra Leone were brutalised from a very young age and had life or death power over adults in their communities. For them to return successfully into those communities and integrate back into both society and school has proved to be a major challenge. Most children in Sierra Leone live in poor rural communities with a lifestyle based around subsistence farming and/or fishing. Homes are without electricity (just 1% compared with 30% in urban areas) or running water and are generally built with mud bricks with thatched roofs with meals being cooked outside on an open fire. Only 6% of rural children have access to improved sanitation (21% in urban areas) leading to many children suffering from bacterial and protozoal diarrhoea, hepatitis A, schistosomiasis and typhoid fever. Malaria and yellow fever are also widespread. Washing is normally done in nearby rivers and water collected from wells of pumped sources. Children in Sierra Leone eat a diet of rice, cassava root, and leafy greens supplemented, when available, by fish. mice, rats, monkey meat or chicken; 300,000 children (11%) suffer from critical malnutrition.
Polygamy is common place in Sierra Leone with children growing up within extended families often including aunts, uncles and grandparents. Given the war and health in the country 43% of all households are made up of just children and young people under the age of 18yrs with no adult carer. Child labour, not that is seen as such in the country, involves 31% of children ages 5-11yrs being lowest in the Western Region (13%) and highest in the Southern Region (46%) of the country. For those children actually attending school in Sierra Leone the school day now starts at 8am and finishes at 2.30pm. The first nine years of education are compulsory and start with Primary Education (6-12yrs) which is free, Junior Secondary Education (12-15yrs) which is free for some in poorer areas and at which point formal education ends although many have already dropped out, then Secondary Education (15-18yrs.)
At the end of Primary Education children who pass their tests are awarded the National Primary School Certificate, then, if again successful, at the end of Junior Secondary Education get a Basic Education Certificate (BECE) that informs what type of further secondary education they will attend (if they stay on) ~ specialist or technical/vocational (often agriculture/carpentry/brickwork etc.) At the end of that period they gain a Senior School Certificate. However many do not pass the Basic Education Certificate exam with the most recent available figures from 2008 showing that 90% of students failed the exam with the Education Minister blaming poor quality teaching. Recently proposals have been drawn up to reinvigorate the educational sector for children with enhanced funding.
This video documentary explores the stories of some Sierra Leone children, their part in the civil war and what happened to them after the ceasefire in 2002. It may be now close to a decade ago, but if you were a child soldier at the age of nine, you would still be one of Sierra Leone's children today.
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