Advocating the rights of children in Sierra Leone
BOMBALI DISCTRICT, Sierra Leone, August 2013 – Theresa Koroma, 28, is a social worker for Defence for Children International (DCI) in Bombali District in the North of Sierra Leone. The NGO DCI is one of UNICEF’s partners working on strengthening child protection systems in the country. “We advocate for children’s rights and provide legal advice and psycho-social support to child victims and children in conflict with the law”, Theresa explains.
Every day Theresa is in close contact with courts and the police to look out for child victims or children in conflict with the law. “I advocate for children not to be put in prison with adults, I negotiate with the police for them to settle minor juvenile cases on community level rather than in court. And I visit children who have been identified as being vulnerable, who live in constant fear of abuse and need counselling and help”, she describes her day to day work.
Theresa has been working with DCI for four years now. “Initially I wanted to become a nurse”, she remembers. “But I changed my mind. I like working with children in the communities, and I want to protect children from abuse. I find it important that children are being respected and can live in their communities with dignity. Working to improve child rights is very rewarding for me.”
The main challenge Theresa faces on a day to day basis is the lack of capacity. “We regularly have to fight for rape and other child abuse cases to be prosecuted and not compromised by local authorities”, she explains. In Sierra Leone it used to be the custom to settle child abuse cases within the community which often did not consider the rights of the children.
Despite this continuous challenge the relationship between DCI and police or other local authorities is very good. “At the beginning they thought we were some kind of spies”, Theresa remembers. “But now they know we are just here to help them ensure the children get the right treatment and their rights are being respected. They appreciate that.”
To be stronger in advocacy activities DCI forms networks with other child rights organisations and raises awareness among the population. The outcome is sometimes lifesaving. Theresa remembers the case of an eight year old girl whose parents sent her from another district to live with her aunt who promised to raise her and provide her with a good education. In reality she used the girl as a domestic servant. One day the little girl complained she was tired. As a punishment her aunt stuffed a cloth in her mouth so she could not scream and beat the girl so badly that she was bleeding everywhere. At some point the girl managed to remove the cloth from her mouth and shouted for help. A neighbour rescued her and immediately called Theresa who took the girl to hospital and the police. “It broke my heart to see this little girl suffer like this. She had trusted her aunt to take care of her”, Theresa recalls. “Now she is living with another relative who is taking proper care of her and sends her to school.”
Theresa has two children herself. Her son Sheku is seven and her daughter Kristina will turn two soon. They also do not live with their immediate family, but with Kristinas mother who lives 250km away. Theresa’s job does not allow her to take care of them. Her partner and father of Kristina is living in Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown where he is also working with DCI. “I know their grandmother loves my children just as much as I do and they are in good hands. But by god’s grace one day my partner and I will get married and we will all live together as a family”, Theresa says hopeful.
“But we will continue doing our jobs and improve the lives of children in Sierra Leone!”, she adds.