UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Ishmael Beah has concluded a visit to his native Sierra Leone on the commemoration of the 30th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Ishmael, a former Sierra Leonean child soldier and best-selling author, travelled to Bombali and Tonkolili Districts in northern Sierra Leone, where he met with child survivors of sexual abuse, children in contact with the law and orphaned children.

“Children in Sierra Leone today are growing up in a country that has opportunities and platforms for growth, but many are still missing out,” said Ishmael, a former Sierra Leonean child soldier who was rescued by UNICEF from the civil war in the 1990s. “As a child, my rights were stripped away. I’m proud to join UNICEF in defending the rights of children everywhere.”

During the trip, Ishmael met university student Aminata who told him about the challenges girls still face in their daily lives, as negative gender roles, harassment and abuse expose them to harm and exclude them from accessing education and life skills. He also met an 8-year-old girl who was sexually abused by her teacher. With support from UNICEF she is receiving psychosocial support and the perpetrator was jailed.

Despite the impact of civil war and an Ebola Virus outbreak in 2014-2015, Sierra Leone has seen significant progress to improve children’s rights and opportunities. Between 2010 and 2017, the rate of children dying under age five more than halved, while the prevalence of underweight children dropped and access to clean, safe drinking water increased. Under the Free Quality Basic School Education Programme, implemented by the Government in 2018, more children can now access an education.

However, gaps remain. Child marriage, sexual abuse, corporal punishment, lack of supportive family systems, child labour and school dropout are among the issues that young people are most worried about today.

Sierra Leone has the 19th highest rate of child marriage in the world, with 20 per cent of girls aged 15 to 19 years in marriage. Corporal punishment is widely used as a form of discipline at home and in schools and 25 per cent of children aged 1 to 14 years old have experienced severe physical discipline. Pervasive poverty – currently at 60 per cent – means scores of children often spend their days in the streets selling wares.

Ishmael also met with President Julius Maada Bio and discussed with him the protection and promotion of the welfare of children in Sierra Leone. President Maada Bio emphasized the Government’s commitment to protecting every child.

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