Counting kids in Sierra Leone

The country’s first headcount of street children is complete. Now the government must act, says Gabriella Jozwiak.

Gabriella Jozwiak

Results are due shortly from Sierra Leone’s first nationwide headcount of street children. The figures will shed light on how many under-18 year olds live permanently on this West African country’s streets, with child welfare activists predicting the number has risen sharply since the 11-year civil war ended in 2002.

The count began in September last year, conducted by locally engaged volunteers who scoured the streets, ghettos and red-light districts of 16 cities over four months. It was funded by a British charity, Street Child of Sierra Leone (SCoSL), and backed by the country’s Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs.

Early results suggest a total in the tens of thousands from a national population of only 5.2 million. This is just one indicator of the continuing challenge of poverty in this country, which is third from the bottom of the Human Development Index after Afghanistan and Niger.

An estimated 15,000 children were separated from their parents by the war, many of whom were left completely alone

Organizers say the headcount is the first step towards helping these children and stabilizing the nation’s future. ‘It’s vital we have a solid figure on the problem so we and others, including government, can plan a strategy based on hard facts,’ said Tom Dannatt, founder of SCoSL. ‘Our work with street children is not just for the children and families themselves – but deep-level peace-building and conflict prevention.’

Children turn to the streets following family breakdown. An estimated 15,000 children were separated from their parents by the war, many of whom were left completely alone or taken in by family members who could not afford their care.

Children at risk

‘Broken homes created an environment where children decided they would become the breadwinners,’ explains Salim Alim, who heads up SCoSL’s social work team and was a headcount trainer. ‘But when they come to the street they fall into child labour, prostitution or crime.’

Alim says that almost all street girls aged over 13 are involved in sex work. ‘They charge as little as 5,000Le ($1) per hour, taking as many men as possible. But often they are raped and beaten.’

Street children as young as six work in markets, washing dishes or carrying heavy loads, for which they are paid a small amount or fed a bowl of rice. They sleep under bridges or in abandoned cars. Many catch malaria or die from pneumonia.

Others beg or are employed by older street boys, the ‘bras’, who organize gangs of pickpockets and thieves. During the war, thousands of boys recruited as child soldiers were made to sniff cocaine ahead of battle to numb their fear. Today, gang-leaders force street boys to take drugs before stealing.

When the results are confirmed, the Ministry will call upon all Sierra Leonean street child organizations to join the government in tackling the problem. ‘We need a strongly committed, multi-sector approach to reduce the number of street children,’ explains the Minister for Social Welfare, Rosaline Oya Sankoh.

Headcount organizers also intend their methodology to set a precedent for other countries formulating street child policies.

The results will be published by SCoSL in February.