Children in war-torn Sierra Leone show signs of healing
WARWICK, RI -- Children's remarkable capacity to heal is borne out once again in Sierra Leone where youngsters there witnessed extreme atrocities during the January 1999 invasion of the capital, Freetown. Now, 9 to 12 months later, children have shown dramatic improvement in traumatic stress symptoms and a restored sense of hopefulness, according to a new study conducted by Childreach, an international child sponsorship organization. These developments follow the children's participation in a trauma healing and expression program. Guided by Dr. Leila Gupta, a leading expert on the psychosocial effects of war related violence on children, this was the first assessment of the impact of Sierra Leone's civil war on surviving children. From October 1999 to January 2000, 315 children were interviewed before and after a four-week program, called RapidEd, which -- also for the first time -- addressed the emotional well-being of war-affected children in addition to their educational needs.
The findings point to a significant reduction in sleep disturbances, bad dreams/nightmares, intrusive images, and anxiety about future well-being. Most noteworthy was a 70 percent improvement in the ability to concentrate in school. Initial interviews showed high levels of traumatic events witnessed personally by the children such as family members injured or killed, loved ones screaming for help, and being forced themselves to maim or kill. Nearly 10 percent of the girls reported that they were gang-raped. Ninety-three percent of the children interviewed were between ages 8 and 13.
"When the child victims of even the most horrific wars learn culturally acceptable ways to express their deepest pain, there is real hope that as adults they will resolve conflicts without violence," said Samuel Worthington, Childreach National Executive Director and CEO.
After the July 1999 peace accord, Childreach (known globally as PLAN International) adapted RapidEd with the Ministry of Education and Gonzalo Retamal of UNESCO, who developed it for children in Rwanda and Burundi. Originally, only numeracy and literacy were taught. PLAN hired Dr. Gupta to integrate trauma healing and to assess effectiveness. Through storytelling, drawing, music, and play children confront their bad memories and painful feelings.
"The cruelty and sadistic nature of the atrocities committed during the 3 week invasion of Freetown are amongst the worst crimes against innocent children and women in the past 15 years," according to Dr. Gupta, who worked for 4 years with UNICEF in Rwanda and Afghanistan. "Thus far, the findings are very compelling in terms of the significant reduction in traumatic stress symptoms among the children who participated in the trauma-healing intervention."
In Sierra Leone since 1977, Childreach has helped nearly 3,000 children with RapidEd, and has paid school fees for 16,000 former sponsored children and their siblings. Founded in 1937, Childreach sponsors help over 1 million families in 42 developing countries give their children a chance to grow up healthy, to learn basic skills and to live in safe and productive communities. For more information on Sierra Leone visit www.childreach.org, or call 1-800-556-7918.
NOTE: To arrange a telephone interview with Dr. Gupta, contact Steven Sookikian at 1-800-556-7918. Digital photos can be downloaded from the Internet, and unedited video in Sony beta format is available on request.
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