Sierra Leone: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women with Disability

Physically challenged women at the House of Jesus Christ Disable organization

Hawa Sombie, lame in one foot due to road accident became pregnant in 2001, a period she considers a ‘dark age’ and which was extremely difficult for person with disabilities to have access to health, education and protection of their fundamental human rights; “An era of no law or policy proclamation that safeguarded the rights of PWDs in Sierra Leone.”

Disability is an impairment that may be physical, cognitive, sensory, and developmental or a combination of at least two of these which results in the restriction of an individual’s ability to participate in what is considered normal in everyday life.

The provisions of Part V– in the Person with Disability Act of 2011; which include, the Rights and Privileges of Persons with Disability, the Right to free education, the Protection from discrimination in educational institutions; that mandate to introduced courses in public educational institutions etc., provisions of free medical services; compulsory screening at health centre; Prohibition of denial of employment; protection from discrimination in employment.

As a physically challenged woman, Hawa could not afford money to pay hospital bills, a situation that forced her to stay at home rather than solicit health care service in hospital. “The rigors that I have been through left me with no option but to cease giving birth,” she said

Sombie, currently the Public Relation Officer of Concern for the Development of Disable Women, Girls and Children in Sierra Leone, said, “The issue of women living with disability continues to be a challenge, and there is evidence of consistent struggle to access healthcare facilities, and the inception of the global Corona Virus Disease pandemic in 2019 (COVID-19) has caused the situation to worsen.”

Sombie contends that COVID-19 has occasioned a discriminatory mode in the provision of health services: viz between the disabled and able-bodied men. “Because of our vulnerability we are perceived to be carriers of the disease therefore less attention is given to us with the fear of health workers catching the virus.”

She said that successive governments have worked on improving access to healthcare for women, girls and children living with disabilities, but disparities persists in the dispensation of medical treatment, even though improvements have been made in the development of policy surrounding disables. She said that they are encountering challenges in encouraging policies at local level.

According to her, the negligence of health workers on women with disability has prevented the Free Health Care Initiative from positively reflecting on the lives of not only women with disabilities, but also able-bodied women across the country. She added that their attitude has watered down the purpose of the initiative.

“It is evidential that medical practitioners do not treat women living with disabilities fairly, nor do they consider or show concern about their health deformities. Even during pregnancies serious attention could not be given to women living with disabilities on the notion that they would not pay for the services rendered; a situation which has cost lives …during child birth or after delivery,” She said.

She reiterated that “The Free Medical is currently functioning without medicine. We only get free checkup from nurses after which a prescription would be given to the patient to purchase the prescribed drugs at the Pharmacy. The situation of those who could not afford the money would become worse and, in some occasions, lead to death.”

She mentioned that the Government of Sierra Leone has failed to institute alternative travel methods for person with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are disabled; most use crutches and wheelchair to move around even if we wash our hands, we end up contaminating our hands; we only move with our wheelchairs with the assistance, therefore social distancing could not be observed.”

“The issuance of certificate needs to be addressed on the side of the government,” she said as she vented out discontent in the light of Government delays in the issuance of certificates to PWDs.

Rashid Dumbuya Esq. Executive Director of LEGAL Link said that Sierra Leone is a signatory to the United Nation (UN) convention that protects rights of person with disabilities (PWDs), and she has also acceded to the regional framework that gave rise to the domestication of the UN convention by having a legal framework on disabilities rights (the Disability Act of 2011) to protects the rights of persons living with disabilities in the Country.

“The government has done a lot in terms of policy and legal framework but the implementation of these framework posed a challenge at the local level in particular where the rights of PWDs are apparent, rare and has been literally forgotten,” Dumbuya noted.

The Chairlady, House of Jesus Christ Disable Organization, Michealla F. Jaka, said that “If the Government of Sierra Leone is particular about free healthcare, we must have access to all the required services as provided in the Disability Act of 2011.We are asked to pay for injection and check-ups, and we also buy our drugs at the pharmacy. To diagnose our health status, we are required to do scanning but the facility could not be provided to us on the backdrop that the Government does not make such provision for it.”

“It should also be noted that during pregnancy, extra attention is given to us and we are placed under the direct supervision of the Doctors and Nurses at Cottage when compared to Connaught Hospital,” she explained.

Dumbuya of LEGAL Link said that the organization currently has two complaints to look into which have to do with two pregnant disable women struggling to access healthcare service in the Country.

“It is acceptable that there is a gap in access to healthcare service for persons with disabilities even though successive government has pronounced a policy directive that women with disabilities should also be included in the Free Healthcare Scheme. It is a clarion call for effective monitoring of these policies and their implementation, and pronouncement by the President through policy directives in term of inclusion of PWDs regarding the healthcare initiative ought to be implemented,” he added.

Dumbuya, emphasized that the Government of Sierra Leone must transcend from a charitable base approach to a sustainable one. He said that disable women are human beings deserving of dignified and respectful treatment accorded reasonable accommodation like any other human being. “Let’s not discriminate against them by treating them as charitable objects. The Legal Link has always pushed further to have concrete and endurable solutions regarding the welfare and fundamental human rights,” he said.

Mawusie P.I. Dumbuya, the Information Communication and Outreach Manager, National Commission for Person with Disability (NCPD), said that “Access to healthcare as per section 17 of the persons with disabilities act stated that; Free healthcare service should be provided for every person living with disability at all government health facilities. As a commission that works to prohibit any form of discrimination against person living with disabilities, they have equal opportunities and other related matters as provided in the Disability Act of 2011.”

“Since the Act came into effect there were challenges with the fact that nurses and doctor were not aware of such provisions unless a memo that was put out by the then Chief Medical Officer in a bid to popularize section 17 of the act even though they are not captured in the free healthcare initiative, but the act provided that they should have free healthcare service,” he said.

He explained that, “The former Minister of health (Professor Alpha Wurie) ensured that person with disabilities were not only treated, but provide with pills. Person with disability can now be treated and diagnosed free of cost; one challenge is that medicines are not imported exclusively for person living with disabilities.”

Dumbuya mentioned that PWDs are finding challenging to have body scans for early detection of medical conditions because the equipment are not available in public health institutions. He added that many times they are referred to private health facilities with the commission bearing the cost.

“Many a times health facilities lack specific drugs unless the commission comes in to purchase those drugs for PWDs,” he said.

“I cannot say COVID-19 has impacted access to healthcare for women living with disabilities because we have no report of such as a Commission. The rate at which PWDs have access to healthcare is much better when compared to the last ten years. They are women; they need check-up, scanning, diagnosis and when the need arises to be operated the commission would ensure that they pay the cost.”

He said at the earliest stage of the pandemic, the messages about COVID-19 were unfriendly to disables, because they were not specifically tailored to fit the facts and circumstances of PWD’s. “The Commission has to develop messages couched around preventive measures for PWDs,” he emphasized.

He furthered that the issuance of certificates to PWDs is 70% complete as provided in section 7 (1) of the PWDs Act wherein they should all have access to healthcare facility, stating that the Ministry of Health and the Commission should setup up a medical board.

“The Cottage Hospital deals exclusively with pregnant women; pregnant women with disabilities are advised to solicit medical attention at Cottage rather than Connaught.”

This story was put together with support from Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) and the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) human rights fellowship.

The Executive Director for Legal LINK, Lawyer Rashid Dumbuya

By George Modupeh Okeh Williams

25/05/2021. ISSUE NO: 8065

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