Sisters Fatouma, 18, and Koumba, 16, are both deaf. They are the eldest of six children and live with their family in Lomé, the capital of Togo. Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, the sisters have been left worried by the changes which they don’t understand as no-one has properly explained the situation to them.
“Things are changing, and deaf people are being left behind. We have seen things on television. There are people with runny noses, others washing their hands, there are animals and monkeys... there are many things going on, but what is it?” Fatouma asks.
The girl’s father is a salesman and their mother makes carpets. Communication between the sisters and their parents is restricted as they do not know sign language, so conversations are usually short, and limited to the essentials.
With the schools, universities and learning centres in Togo now closed to prevent the spread of the virus, the girls are unable to access their usual sources of information. Fatouma attends a school for deaf children and Koumba attends a local college.
Both face challenges at school – for Fatouma, her school is a long journey away and her family cannot always afford to pay her transport costs, so she often has to miss classes. Koumba’s school does not cater for her hearing impairment, so she is unable to understand her lessons and has to copy other girls schoolwork to keep up.
Without understand why, the sisters are imitating the behavior of those around them. “We do not understand anything. We are just there, following others. We look at the people who are wearing face masks, so we wear them too, to be like them,” Fatouma says.
Plan International is responding to the COVID-19 crisis in Togo to provide inclusive education for children who are out of school. We are working with parents and guardians to give them the tools they need to ensure their children can continue to learn at home using alternative and innovative distance learning methods.
We are also reaching out to children and young people, particularly girls and those with disabilities, to help them become more informed about COVID-19 and the potential consequences, such as the increased risk of violence which they might be exposed to while confined to their homes, as well as the ways they can protect themselves.
When asked about the future, the sisters hesitate before replying. “We are just wondering what it will be like at school, and what is going on with us at home? We are just waiting.” Fatouma says.
Neither girl thinks they will be able to work for a living, as options are limited for people with disabilities in Togo who face a lifetime of discrimination and abuse. "I would like to be a midwife, but I don't think I would ever be given this opportunity,” says Koumba.