The Abandoned Children of Sierra Leone

Young Sierra Leoneans wash clothes.

"In today's Independent magazine: a shocking article on the child inmates at Pademba Road prison," a text message from Ade Daramy read. I had just woken up, switched on my mobile phone, when this message came through. Ade, a very good friend of mine, always forwards numerous articles by email, often fascinating ones on Sierra Leone and Africa—like the one published on the BBC: "New business hope for Sierra Leone's war children" by Jon Cronin. I enjoyed reading that one. It was about the entrepreneurial determination of the youth to drive Sierra Leone's development.

But the article on the Independent, one of the United Kingdom's leading newspapers, "A Boy Named Abdul," written by John Carlin on March 5, was disheartening to read. My six-year-old boy noticed my frowned face while reading this article. He came closer to me, wrapped his hand around my shoulder. "Who's that?" he asked keenly, pointing at the very sad faces of the inmates featured in the piece. "They are children at a prison," I replied." I asked him what he made of it. "This is bad," he replied, without any hesitation.

Indeed, my son's verdict is as good as mine. My heart was pounding rapidly, my eyes settled with tears. I felt like shouting very loudly, in a way that the strength of my voice would destroy the unrepentant walls of Pademba Road prison and set free all the innocent young people locked up in there.

According to Carlin's report, children, below 18 years, were being jailed in an adult prison in Sierra Leone. Steven, a 17-year-old, had been sentenced for three years for stealing two sheep. He died last year after reportedly suffered malnutrition and illness. He died "like a stray dog," a nurse described. Another boy, 15, got three years for breaking a car window.

There are allegedly more serious crimes that are not being investigated, the perpetrators not being brought to justice. Such as the illegal selling of Sierra Leonean passports to foreign nationals. Such as the police who take bribes and pervert the course of justice. Such as officials in public positions who embezzle state funds and take bribes. Are these crimes not more serious than stealing two sheep?

Most of the children serving jail sentences, according to the report, lost their parents during the war. Some have no responsible adult looking after them. The parents of many are very poor. These are the abandoned children of our society.

An anonymous lawyer featured in the report said, "If you don't have money, you can't get justice in Sierra Leone."

Carlin's report did not provide a thorough insight into child inmates in prisons across the country (he spent only a few weeks in the country), but it reflects the social exclusion our young people face in Sierra Leone.

Approximately 75 percent of young people between 18 and 35 are unemployed. Reports find that thousand of young people are employed in mining, but they work in deplorable conditions and their take-home salary is incredibly low.

Even though Sierra Leone officially has free education, for the children—especially the poor—it is inaccessible because their parents are unable to buy textbooks and other materials for school. Last year education spending was 8 percent of the national budget, while 40 percent was spent on governance.

In December 2010, the government banned musical activities due to trouble caused by a tiny minority—resulting in loss of earnings for many young musicians for whom December can be a lucrative month.

A couple weeks ago, 30 school pupils were sent to prison for up to nine months, for being in possession of knives, scissors, compasses and forks.

Of the money the World Bank committed for youth employment, much of it is being spent on short-term job creation, while a small amount is spent on skills training. Should it not be the other way around?

Significant investment should be directed toward preventing youth crime and providing resources that will make the lives of the youth meaningful. Of course, as a society we should punish those who commit offenses, but we should be equally concerned about the motivation for a child to commit an offense in the first place.

Every Sierra Leonean child has rights, regardless of their social or economic background. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure the rights of children are protected. Our courts must ensure that punishment is proportionate to the nature of the crime, taking mitigating circumstances into consideration before giving children custodian sentences.

The fight against corruption must be intensified, and preventive measures must be put in place to make it very hard for someone to steal or misuse public money. Stealing public money causes a reduction in our country's resources, while depriving our youth of resources like education.

In recent years politicians have added in their policy statements that they care about the youth. But they have largely failed to do much to address the problems that the youth face. Perhaps in the coming general elections the youth should sign a legally binding contract with politicians so that they can be held accountable if they fail to deliver on a promise.

Probably, most of our young people in prison in Sierra Leone are wrongly convicted and pose no threat to our society. These children, and our country's future, are being robbed by this injustice and neglect.

Unisa Dizo-Conteh is the president of Young Leaders-Sierra Leone (www.ylsl.org), an organization that provides a platform for young Sierra Leonean professionals at home and in the Diaspora to participate in nation building through dialogue, education, advocacy, networking and development.