The hunt for the lost children of Sierra Leone

The war left a generation on the streets and invisible. Can a census help them rebuild their lives?

"Many times, four or five men used me in one night. Afterwards, they took my money and beat me mercilessly." In a Sierra Leonean local radio studio, 17-year-old Isatu Conteh is describing her life on the streets. Leaning over the microphone, she explains that rebels burned her parents to death in the war. Destitute, she turned to prostitution aged 13.

In Sierra Leone, the only shocking thing about Isatu's story is that it is well-documented. For, as the population of street children has rocketed since the end of a savage civil war in 2002, the government has struggled to keep up.

No one knows how many children like Isatu there are, and, as tight budgets constrain efforts to rebuild the country, there are fears that their fate will slip off the agenda, a prospect that experts say could mean another lost generation and could even risk a return to the social tensions of the pre-war years.

Isatu is on the radio to lend her support to the first step in grappling with the problem, a step at once simple and enormously complicated. It is time, she says, to count the street children. The country's first nationwide headcount has been under way since September. It will cover 16 cities, concluding in the capital, Freetown, with the totals published early next year. The attempt to get a sense of how many street children there are is a hugely ambitious undertaking, and fraught with difficulties.

"It's much more than a census, which only provides a snapshot of demographics and is potentially inaccurate," says Jacinta Sweeney, director of training at Streetinvest, the British organisation that designed a process being put in place by a British charity, Street Child of Sierra Leone (SCoSL), with backing from the country's Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs.

The counters are local volunteers with expertise in street work. Their knowledge is essential in identifying likely locations and knowing how to blend into them. They will visit ghettos, ganglands and red-light districts.

"A risk is that those on the street misunderstand the counters' role and feel threatened, including the children themselves," explains Ms Sweeney. For this reason, the counters have sought police clearance. They dress to match their surroundings and tally numbers discretely in palm-sized notebooks.

The counters walk each city's streets repeatedly, day and night, to ensure consistent results. "In the day, the children are engaged in casual work – selling, washing dishes or carrying loads – for a little money or food," says Salim Alim, who heads SCoSL's social work team and is a head-count trainer. "The greatest difficulty is in observation. We have to determine whether they are true street children or go home at night." The counters also record beggars, the disabled, the jobless and sex workers.

Children across Africa are sent to work to boost family incomes. The nation is third from the bottom on the Human Development Index, and over half the population survives on $1 a day. Children commonly turn to the street following family breakdown. The government estimates more than 15,000 children were separated from families during the 11-year war. Others flee domestic violence. Sierra Leone passed its Child Rights Act (CRA) in 2007 and ratified the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1990, but the act has largely failed. "People see the CRA as a western ideology that challenges local traditions," says Mr Alim. "Corporal punishment happens here every day."

As a result, thousands of children live independently, becoming sick or falling into crime. HIV and STIs are rife among girl prostitutes, and malaria and pneumonia kill indiscriminately. Children suffer abuse from gang-leaders, or "bras".The bras organise bands of pickpockets and, in a haunting echo of the war, when child soldiers were prepared for battle with injected cocaine, pump the boys with drugs before sending them to steal. For teenage girls, prostitution is the standard method of survival. Charging as little as 5,000 leone (70p) an hour, their work is dangerous and the stigma it carries denies the children their basic rights. "Once I was stabbed by a customer,"says Isatu. "When I went to the police, they arrested me and expected 50,000 leone for bail. I had to sell my belongings to pay it."

Night counting is designed to capture this group on Saturdays and Wednesdays – "ladies' night" when clubs offer girls free entry. In the eastern city of Kono, once a diamond boom-town but blighted by the war, prostitution is aggravated by foreign miners. "Girls migrate from villages to Kono because the miners pay well," says Mr Alim. The Kono count recorded more than 100 child prostitutes in one evening.

Tom Dannatt, founder of SCoSL, which has returned hundreds of street children to schools and families since 2008, warns: "If we do not address this issue, these children will grow up uneducated and unable to make a useful contribution to society. They grow up brutalised, radicalised and in active opposition to society. That is when it becomes dangerous. Sierra Leone's recent history is a shocking reminder of that."

Sierra Leone's Ministry of Social Welfare says it is committed to tackling the problem. "The head count will enable the ministry to speak with authority on the issue and put us in a better position to map appropriate strategies to remove these children from the streets," says the Minister for Social Welfare, Rosaline Oya Sankoh.

Isatu hopes the count helps more street children return, as she has, to their families and to school. "Now I feel secure and protected," she tells the radio audience. "All I want is an education, so I never have to live on the streets again."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee