go to site The devastating impact of the Ebola crisis was laid bare this week with a report showing more than 12,000 children have been orphaned by the disease in Sierra Leone.
They have been identified in the first national survey of orphans, which was conducted by the British charity Street Child. It says the future for these children is dire. Many are living in fear without the support and security of parents, but the charity says there is light at the end of the tunnel “if the international aid community works together”.
The charity found that some children, rejected by their friends because of the stigma of Ebola, have tried to take their own lives, while girls are being forced into commercial sex work to earn money for food their parents would have previously provided.
Its case studies expose the vulnerability of those left behind without an adult for support.
One 17-year-old girl from Kailahun lost both parents and her 14-year-old brother, leaving her in charge of her twin brother and 11-year-old sister. During the 21-day quarantine period, one of the soldiers guarding the quarantined zone broke into her home and attempted to rape her.
“It is very striking that such a vulnerable child-headed family, living not in a rural location, but in the second town of Sierra Leone, have received no external assistance – it shows the limit of the Ebola response to date,” said Street Child, which recently came to her aid.
Another girl, identified as Mariatu, lost her father to Ebola. She now joins her mother and eight younger siblings working in a quarry to feed themselves. She is also pregnant, and the father of her child is no longer around.
The charity also came across the case of 28 children from the three wives of a pharmacist in Makeni who contracted Ebola and died. He was the sole breadwinner, and on further investigation was found to be supporting 52 people in his community.
The agency also found grandmothers suddenly left with children to support after their own children died.
The average age of orphans was nine, with 17% looked after by a caregiver who is supporting five or more orphans.
Alhaji Moijueh KaiKai, Sierra Leone’s minister for welfare, gender and children’s affairs, said: “It is clear that none have suffered more than those who lost parents and vital caregivers, those they really relied on, to this virus.”
Tom Dannatt, Street Child’s chief executive, said the scale of the disaster was unprecedented since the civil war. He said it was understandable that the international focus was on beating the disease, but now that an end was in sight, “Ebola orphans should be amongst the first in line for help”.
The charity sent hundreds of social workers across the country to urban and rural communities to establish the true extent of the orphan problem.
Dannatt said that in September 2014 Street Child set a target of helping 1,000 orphans, but says it is now providing humanitarian and psychosocial support to almost 11,000.
Apart from day-to-day survival, one of the biggest challenges ahead for orphans is education. Schools are scheduled to reopen on 30 March and although many are desperate to get an education, some will be unable to afford to do so in their new roles as heads of their households.
Port Loko, a rural district just north of Freetown, has been identified as the epicentre of the orphan crisis. With almost 3,500 orphans registered, it has almost as many cases as the three next largest districts combined.