Growing up, Charlilaos Koroma, Ibrahim Dumbuya and Nenneh Kargbo found themselves on the frontlines of the fight against discrimination in Sierra Leone. As children with physical disabilities, they were born into a society ill-equipped to accommodate physical accessibility for persons with disabilities (PWDs) and unprepared to accept PWDs as equal members of society. Despite this, PWDs are fighting to overcome the limitations placed on them by society and become agents of change within their communities. While their life experiences, obstacles and politics diverge, Charlilaos, Ibrahim and Nenneh, in partnership with NDI, found themselves united on stage at the New Brookfields Hotel in Freetown in January to raise awareness on inclusion in the first-ever PWD political debate in Sierra Leone’s history.
PWDs make up at least 15% of Sierra Leone’s population yet remain heavily marginalized throughout all levels of society. Families don’t often prioritize education for children with disabilities and instead send them to work or beg on the streets, isolating them from their peers and potential paths to employment. PWDs, especially women, also face higher rates of homelessness, discrimination and crime. They are also often forced to raise children with little to no support. Politically, the visibility of PWDs and their priorities in government remains low. Though the government has taken steps to combat discrimination and guarantee the inclusion of PWDs through instruments like the 2011 Person with Disabilities Act, implementation of these efforts has been inadequate. Government officials lack general knowledge of disability issues and have failed to systematically consider PWD priorities in decision-making processes. This is despite efforts by disabled persons’ organizations to access, lobby and engage government officials on key public policy issues impacting PWDs. The need to elevate PWD voices and priority issues ahead of the June 2023 national elections is clear, leading NDI to partner with the National Political Debates Committee (NPDC) to plan, prepare for and execute PWD-focused debates between PWDs from Sierra Leone’s political parties.
On January 26, 2023, 16 debaters - representing 16 of the 17 registered political parties - took the stage to share their thoughts and experiences on PWD inclusion and priority issues with political party leaders, government officials, international donors and the people of Sierra Leone. To Charlilaos, Ibrahim and Nenneh, taking the stage for the PWD debate was not only a historic moment but an empowering opportunity to amplify PWD voices on a national stage and inspire the PWD community to engage more actively in politics. As the debate began, each debater had the opportunity to field questions on PWD participation in their political party, the challenges PWDs face within the party and how the party is promoting the participation of PWDs. Some debaters called on the government to consider a 10% quota for the participation of PWDs in elected and appointed positions, while women debaters pointed to the intersection of gender and disability and how it impacts their participation in society and politics. Charlilaos, representing the Sierra Leone People’s Party, drew attention to opportunity creation, highlighting the need for institutions to increase the visibility of PWDs and PWD policy priorities and provide opportunities for PWDs to showcase their capacities and role in all areas of society, starting from a young age. He noted, "As citizens of Sierra Leone, PWDs should not have to beg to actively participate in politics, receive an education, and find employment, but should consistently be given equal opportunity to do so.” In their messaging, Nenneh and Ibrahim, representing the Coalition for Change party and United Democratic Movement party, respectively, drew attention to the diversity of PWDs in Sierra Leone, reiterating that there is “ability” in disability and that disability should not define how individuals participate in society. The debate also provided a platform for PWD party representatives to come together to collaborate on and develop actionable steps to expand the inclusion and representation of PWDs across political, party, and governance structures.
As the June 2023 elections approach, NDI and the debaters plan to build on the momentum from the debate to make professional and political gains for PWDs, and to rally support from parties, citizens and government officials to establish enabling instruments for inclusion. These can include an All Political Party Persons with Disabilities Association or a quota for representation in elected and appointed positions. In his campaign to become the next national youth secretary general of the Sierra Leone People’s Party, Charlilaos will utilize his improved capacity to speak on political issues and the confidence gained from participating in the PWD debate to showcase his ideas and ability to effectively take on the role. Ibrahim plans to use post-debate support from his party to push the party to nominate PWD aspirants for elected positions and endorse their election into parliament. Nenneh is looking to leverage her new visibility within her party and among her friends and family to transform perceptions of PWDs and their place in society and expand opportunities for PWDs to actively engage in politics. As Charlilaos, Ibrahim, Nenneh and other PWDs push forward in their fight, NDI is excited to continue amplifying their voices and bolster their strategies for expanding PWD inclusion across Sierra Leone.
Author: Alex Middleberg, Program Officer for the Central and West Africa team
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.