Mariama, age 27
Mariama was born in Makeni into a very poor family. She moved to Freetown when she was fourteen years old. She was living on the streets for two years, selling her body to men to earn a living. She fell in love and became pregnant when she was 17. She later discovered that her boyfriend – who also has a speech and hearing impairment – was being unfaithful and she left him. Her son, Daniel, is now 9 years old and lives with her family in Makeni. Daniel does not have a speech and hearing impairment, but he learned to speak sign language so that he can communicate with his mother.
Teenage pregnancy is a common sight in Sierra Leone, including among young women with disabilities. It is often the case that girls with disabilities who have been cast out by their families form close attachments with boys at a young age and fall pregnant early, since they have never been shown love by others. Despite the assumption that people with disabilities are not sexual beings, many of them go in the opposite direction, having lots of children in they their hope that their offspring will take care of them, or that they can earn more money begging. This suggests are more complex and nuanced picture where girls with disabilities are not simply always vulnerable and victims, but instead make life decisions demonstrating a certain amount of agency.
People with speech and hearing impairments often feel like the government ignores them and does not pay attention to their needs. They express frustration that the term, “people with disabilities” is generally only applied to those people living with evident physical impairments and does not include them. Disability advocacy in Sierra Leone is fairly fragmented and disunited, with the different categories of disability groups each mainly looking after their own interests. While the war amputees have been given preferential treatment by the government and have been provided with housing, the speech and hearing impaired, and those whose disabilities are as a result of polio, have had struggled to receive any form of government subvention. They usually need to find their own housing, either by inhabiting dilapidated buildings or constructing their own properties, like the house taken in this photo which belongs to Mariama’s friend, Ramatu. The conditions are extremely poor with limited space and are prone to coldness and flooding from the rains, meaning that people often get cold and sick.
Sexual violence is a widespread problem in Sierra Leone and affects the lives of young women with disabilities, including those with speech and hearing impairments, to a greater extent: “Some men think, since this person is a disabled, she will not be able to fight me. So they just come in and go away” . Disability is a very gendered experience, as issues of sexual violence, health and reproduction impact and exacerbate the experience of living with a disability for many young women in Sierra Leone.