Recent conflicts have meant that children of war are quite rightly at the forefront of everyone's minds, and I want to tell you how we can help them. I recently saw with my own eyes just how devastating the long-term effects of war are on generations of children when I travelled with ActionAid to Sierra Leone.
I went to investigate how child sponsorship is contributing to rebuilding a country once destroyed by civil war. 500,000 people were killed in the conflict and almost half the population was displaced. Throughout my visit I was overwhelmed by how extreme the poverty is 11 years on.
It soon became clear that Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world and deeply affected by war, you can sense the strain; the capital is seriously overcrowded, unemployment sky-high, but of course it is the children who suffer the most. They are being robbed of a childhood. The war is over, peace is restored, but conflict continues to affect generations of children. Today 60 per cent of Sierra Leone's citizens live below the national poverty line.
This is where ActionAid comes in. I first came across the charity as a child when my stepfather showed me a letter he had received from Kabba, a boy he sponsored in Sierra Leone. They wrote to each other a few times each year and for my stepfather it was a wonderful way to feel connected to the charity he supported, and to follow Kabba's progress. For Kabba, I hope it was a way to tell him the world was thinking about him and was prepared to help.
I went to the Blamawo community in the east of Sierra Leone. ActionAid has so far provided water, a school and a medical centre. Life is pretty good for this community, the children were happy and I could see so clearly how the money used through sponsorship can dramatically change their lives.
Yet, Sierra Leone has the highest under-five mortality rate worldwide, malaria accounts for 25% of all child deaths and only 40% of people have access to healthcare resources at all. It desperately needs more medical centres - the one in Blamawo not only serves that community but fifteen others too. Mary, the head nurse, told me she delivers a baby about once a day. Recently she'd attended two mothers in labour and while one lucky mother was able to give birth on the solitary bed at the centre, the other mother had to give birth to her baby in the cramped passage way as there was no more room.
So while I was extremely impressed with the medical centre and Mary herself, it wasn't what I'd been expecting - in comparison to what we're used to in the UK it was shockingly rundown. I couldn't help but wonder what on earth it would've been like if ActionAid weren't there.
In the Mbundorbu community you could see the ruins of houses torched to the ground and bullet holes on the side of the church. The women and children had been victims of war and had experienced first-hand the terror of having their families torn apart by the rebels. Many had to flee only to return to their ruined homes, having lost partners and children. Conflict in war-torn countries around the world causes a massive loss of childhood, and there was still trauma and suffering within the next generation of children I met, who have grown up after the war.
Every single child I asked about their parents on my visit told me one of them was dead. Not all to war, some to sickness, but this just highlights the need I saw everywhere for more medical centres, re-education and housing. In the last decade, 10million children worldwide have been psychologically traumatised as a result of war. Many children die or become gravely ill as a result of living in conflict.
I met Sahr, the head of the Mayemie Training Centre. It's funded by child sponsorship through ActionAid and supports anyone who's on the streets or orphaned. Many of the young people there were former child soldiers or had turned to prostitution during the war. Here they are taught skills: welding, carpentry, tailoring and catering. Orphaned by the war himself, Sahr's inspiring personality was stamped all over the place.
I met many passionate people who are all warm and dignified. They've suffered so much it just seems ridiculous that everybody's not stamping and screaming all the time. Now that I'm back in the world of scripts and shows I just can't stop thinking about those children and wishing I were back there with them. Please help us to give everyone the right to a happy childhood.
Sarah's trip marks the beginning of ActionAid's campaign to rebuild the shattered lives of millions of children growing up in countries scarred by war. More than 2,000 UK child sponsors are needed for children in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Rwanda
Sarah Alexander is now sponsoring a three year old girl in Sierra Leone.
To find out more information about the campaign visit: www.actionaid.org.uk/child