In a week where the UK news cycle seemed to stand still for the news out of Kensington Palace, it’s easy to forget that the world is facing emergencies and conflicts on an unprecedented scale. From hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people fleeing to Bangladesh, to the food crisis in East Africa, and conflicts raging in Yemen, Syria and Northern Nigeria, humanitarian charities are stretched to their limits in a way I haven’t experienced in the decades I’ve worked in the sector.
The consequences of these disasters and emergencies is devastating. People lose their homes and independence, often becoming completely reliant on help from the international community. That help initially comes in the form of ‘the basics’ such as food, clean water and shelter.
But within these crises, there are many hidden needs, and it’s vital that the services being delivered meet the specific needs of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups, such as children with disabilities.
In 2014, the Ebola crisis shattered the education system in Sierra Leone. By summer of that year, many schools across the country had been shut down and 1.8 million children stopped their education.
At Plan International we believe that every child has the right to a quality education, and schools need to be all inclusive. That’s why over the past four years, as Sierra Leone has begun to bounce back from the devastation of Ebola, we have supported over 4,000 young girls and boys with disabilities to get the education that they deserve.
Children with disabilities face additional risks in emergencies, conflicts and natural disasters. The evidence shows that children with disabilities are more likely to experience exclusion and discrimination, and run a higher risk of being abused compared to other children.
Soueba, 14, has a physical disability that affects her mobility. She was forced to flee Nigeria when her village was attacked by insurgents.
“There was a loud bang, I saw roof tops on fire and heard bullets ricocheting around us. People screamed and ran in all directions. I fell onto my belly, I could not move. My mother ran, she thought I was dead. After a while, a stranger picked me up and put me on their back,” Soueba said.
Soueba was reunited with her mother when she reached Diffa, in Niger. They have lived there for the past two years, just like thousands of other families that fled to this volatile border town.
“Life has changed a lot for me since we settled here. Without food and water, my mother had to leave me alone here as she went to search for food. I would sometimes crawl to my neighbour’s house but children stared and pointed at me. I had no friends. I was sad most of the time,” said Soueba.
Soueba’s story is a stark reminder that the specific needs of children with disabilities can all too quickly be forgotten when a community is in crisis. International NGOs like Plan International must strive to ensure this isn’t the case.
One day, Soueba’s mother attended a session from Plan International about child protection and learned about the charity’s child-friendly spaces, an all-inclusive place where children can go to learn and play.
Soueba said, “From the first day I started coming to this centre, I have been so happy. I belong here. I come every day. I win many games, sing with other children and listen to aunty when she talks about being clean and what to do when we see bad people. The aunties told all the children that I am just like them. Now I have many friends.”
Ahead of International Day of Disabled Persons on Sunday, the new International Development Secretary, Penny Mourdant, has announced that next year the UK will bring together governments, charities and technology companies in a global disability summit. I welcome that Ms Mourdant’s first speech since being appointed identified the challenges people with disabilities in the developing world face and look forward to seeing what comes out of the summit next year.
Plan International is working hard to ensure that every child is given the support they need, without discrimination or exclusion, whatever the circumstances they find themselves in. That way children and young people like Soueba can have the chance to rebuild a life for herself again. It’s a lesson we should all remember as we mark International Day of Disabled Persons.