15-year-old Ramatu was abandoned by her parents ten years ago after they left her with her grandmother to travel to the diamond-rich town of Kono ten years ago in search of a better life. Neither her mother nor father have been in contact with their families since then.
At the time, Ramatu was just five years old. “I couldn’t recognise them anymore, because it was a long time ago… I mean a very long time since they went, I haven’t seen them since then and wouldn’t be able to recognise them if they come back today.”
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Ramatu enjoyed going to school and spent her time playing and studying with her friends, but now, most of her time is spent either helping her grandmother with the household chores or working on the family farm. “It’s very boring, there’s no time to play or to spend time with my friends. If I am not working on the farm, I am working at home.”
Rice, which is the staple food in Sierra Leone, has become very expensive. A cup of rice can cost up to Le.2000 (half a dollar) and the poverty level in rural communities means that most families are unable to afford to buy more than a few cups at a time. For Ramatu and her family it is not possible to have three meals a day. They eat rice only a few times a month. Mostly, they survive on cassava and potatoes as their main food source.
To support Ramatu and other vulnerable families, Plan International has launched a supplementary food distribution programme in collaboration with the government of Sierra Leone. We are providing needy families in Port Loko and five other districts across the country with 22kg of rice. So far, more than 3,000 households have received cartons of rice in 12 communities in Port Loko district.
Ramatu and her large family are extremely grateful to receive the cartons of rice. “We usually only cook three cups of rice to feed the twelve of us, now with this rice, we will not go hungry for a long time,” she says. “My grandmother is always busy ensuring that she sends us to school and providing for us. Without any external support things are difficult for us in terms of survival and taking care of the home.”
To control the spread of COVID-19 in Sierra Leone, all schools and other learning institutes have been closed so Ramatu has been unable to take her National Primary School Examinations which were supposed to happen in the first week of May.
To help children study at home, the government initiated a radio teaching programme to keepstudents engaged during this period. However, Ramatu has not had the opportunity to listen and learn from the programme, as she spends most of her day searching for food. “We are responsible for finding food, so there is no time to study or listen to the radio,” she says.
According to the Ministry of Education, over 14,000 girls fell pregnant in 2014 when they had to stay home during the Ebola outbreak. Most of these girls became engaged in petty trading, when their parents sending them to search for food for the family.
“Disease outbreaks affect girls and boys, women and men differently and steps need to be taken to ensure that policies and interventions to respond to the outbreak are equitable, protective of human rights, inclusive of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society, and responsive to the different needs and risks faced by individuals,” explains Evariste Sindayigaya, Plan International Sierra Leone Country Director.
“Girls, especially those from marginalised communities and with disabilities, are particularly affected by the secondary impacts of the outbreak due to their age, gender and other exclusion factors,” Mr Sindayigaya adds.