Women with disabilities in Sierra Leone live at an even greater level of vulnerability than the average woman, in a country that already puts women at a disadvantage.
• 98% of women with disabilities fall below the HPI (Human Poverty Index – measured by income, education, water sources and life expectancy). This is as opposed to 47.7% of all Sierra Leoneans.
• Less than 2% of the women with disabilities earn a sustainable income or are employed.
• Less than 20% of these women have an education above primary school and 46% of them had no education at all.
• 70% of women with disabilities have suffered from rape or sexual exploitation.
Women of Hope serves approximately 350 women in the town of Makeni (pop. ~100,000) who have disabilities of many kinds. Some of the disabilities represented among the women are – blindness, deafness, Post-Polio Syndrome, paralysis (from injuries or poorly administered immunizations), elephantaiasis, amputation, leprosy and war wounds.
The following story gives you some insight into the typical life of one of these women:
Yeabu contracted polio when she was a child. She said she had a fever and awoke one night screaming and then her legs couldn’t move. Her parents despaired, knowing that she had been affected by a demon. They called the traditional doctor to see if he could help, but still she couldn’t walk. They decided she was cursed and treated her as such. When all of her brothers and sisters went to school, she had to stay home, sitting in the dirt. Her mother said that she could not learn, because she was only a half-human. When she got older, her parents kicked her out of her house, saying that she was bringing trouble to them with her curse. She found a man who would take her and they had some children. Her husband soon left her, another rejection, telling her that she was unworthy and unfit as a human being.
Yeabu took to begging on the streets for a living, her three little children around her. She was not happy with her life, but she never imagined that she could have a better life. She believed what she had been told – that she was half-human and cursed by God. She knew that she was going to live in the streets for the rest of her life. She had no way to put her children in school and sometimes they didn’t even have enough to eat. She was able to find one room to rent for the equivalent of $2.50 per month. It was small, and the roof leaked when it rained, but it was better than sleeping outside. The landlord was a tyrant and caused a lot of problems for Yeabu. She had a small market table outside the house where she sold some food items, but the landlord would demand things from her and not pay. He threatened to kick her out of the house if she refused to give him whatever he wanted. He said she and her children were dirty and refused to let them use the household latrine. Yeabu and her children had to use the bushes near the house when they needed to relieve themselves.
One day, Yeabu’s children were playing in the compound with other children. The son of the landlord fell and cut his eye. Yeabu’s daughter, who was about 12 years old at the time, picked him up and carried him on her back to his father. When the landlord saw the boy, he grabbed him away from Yeabu’s daughter, screaming at her and throwing her on the ground. He said that the girl wounded the boy purposely and began to stomp on her body, over and over, until she became crippled and couldn’t get up. The child never recovered from her injuries and became disabled like her mother.
When Women of Hope announced that they were looking for women to produce products to be sold in America as Fair Trade, Yeabu’s daughter, now nearly grown, said to her mother, “Let’s borrow the money and try to make something to sell. I know how to make purses that I think they will buy.” Yeabu borrowed the money and bought the materials and she and her daughter made purses and bracelets. She brought them to WOHInt and sold them. In order to sell the products, the women must sign a contract and the sales receipt. Yeabu had never gone to school, and in fact had never held a pen. She was taught her how to sign her name and she signed the receipt for her sale. With the money she earned, Yeabu paid off her debt and had enough money for rent and food for several weeks.
However, Yeabu didn’t persevere in her new skill. The draw to her old ways was too strong. She had begged for so long, that it became comfortable. She returned to the streets and to begging.