Sierra Leone

As nearly 2 million children return to school in ebola-stricken Sierra Leone, psychosocial support will be crucial, says aid agency

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  • Pupils need practical care to deal with stress, lost confidence

  • World Vision fears all children won’t be able to return to school, especially girls

Some 1.7 million children return to school in Sierra Leone today after a nine-month hiatus during the Ebola epidemic, but some may be burdened by more than books and backpacks as they head to class.

“Most children are very excited about going back to school after being idle at home for so long, but many are also fearful and worried,” says Alison Schafer, World Vision’s mental health and psychosocial support specialist, who is based in Freetown. “Although they may be concerned about the possibility of catching Ebola in the classroom, they are more worried that they’ve forgotten everything they’ve learned. They’re anxious about whether they can ever catch up.”

Children in Sierra Leone have been directly or indirectly affected by the Ebola crisis, says Schafer. The government estimates that 8,617 children lost one or both parents to the virus, and 1,450 children contracted the disease themselves. However, all school-aged children have born the brunt of Ebola, after sacrificing almost a year of education during school closures.

“Re-opening schools is not just a one-off event. It’s going to be a months-long journey,” notes Schafer. “We need to create a supportive learning environment where children feel safe to express their emotions about what they have endured.”

The task of resettling a nation of children whose lives have been so profoundly disrupted is daunting. Equipping teachers with psychosocial first aid skills is key to helping students get back to their books, says Schafer. She co-wrote a training manual being used nationally by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology to help teachers recognize and deal with signs of stress in children, including poor focus, irritability, and hyperactivity. World Vision has trained more than 1,000 teachers in psychosocial support skills.

Some government critics warn that not all schools will be ready to open today. During the height of the Ebola crisis, many schools were used as treatment centres, and now need to be disinfected and refurbished. “We are cautiously optimistic that most schools will open their doors today, which is a critical first step on the road to post-Ebola recovery,” says Leslie Scott, Director of World Vision Sierra Leone. “But there is still a tremendous amount to be done to ensure that classrooms are safe and supportive for our children.”

To help students get set for class, World Vision is helping to provide books, uniforms and school supplies to the 58,000 children in its sponsorship program. The government has waived school fees for all children for the next two years to encourage enrollment.

Schafer is concerned that some pupils may never return to school. “Many children began working—selling firewood and jobs like that—while out of school this past year,” she said. “It will be hard for struggling families to sacrifice even that small income and send their children back, especially girls. We must advocate that all children have the opportunity to return to school.”

World Vision Ireland recently received a grant from the European Commission DG Research & Development. It will serve to implement an awareness-raising programme on the ground in West Africa to build trust amongst communities to dispel misconceptions about Ebola. Activities related to awareness raising and sensitization at community level will be conducted. “We believe this new programme will bring hope to children and their community and enable them to rebuild their lives,” says Deirdre de Burca, World Vision Brussels and EU Representation Director of Advocacy and Justice for Children.

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About World Vision

World Vision is a Christian relief, development and advocacy organisation dedicated to working with children, families and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.

For almost 20 years, World Vision Sierra Leone has partnered with communities to improve health, education, food security and protection for children. World Vision works through 25 area development programmes benefiting more than 58,000 children and their families.

Available for interview in Freetown:

Leslie Scott, National Director

World Vision Sierra Leone

Alison Schafer, Technical Specialist

Mental Health and Psychosocial Support

World Vision International

To arrange an interview, contact Karen Homer, Communications

Mobile: +232 (0) 7895 88 75

Email: Karen_homer@wvi.org

Skype: Karen.homer.guelph