TOGO: Freeing disabled children from damaging customs (IRIN)

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    Disabled children in Togo are often ridiculed, hidden indoors for years, neglected, and cut off from normal life. This is done out of fear, shame and strong traditional beliefs.

    For example, eighteen-year-old Sofia Adama was left disabled by a botched injection when she was a baby. She remembers, “I was told I was good for nothing. Even my brothers and sisters said I was inferior to them, and they mocked me.”

    Afi Ouro is another teen, a thirteen-year-old who lives in a small village outside Sokodé. She has epilepsy and often hides in a dark room in her family home. She takes refuge there after being humiliated by villagers, who publicly mock her club feet and ostracize her entire family.

    There is no universally agreed definition of “disability.” But disabilities are generally considered to include various long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which interact with barriers in the environment to hinder full and effective participation in society.

    Naka Abalo is coordinator of the Community Based Rehabilitation Project, operated by the NGO Plan International in Sokodé, Togo’s second largest city. He says, “Disability is considered a form of sorcery or the result of a demon in the family.”

    Neighbours believed that throwing stones at Ouro when she had an epileptic seizure would prevent her from spreading epilepsy. But her parents were convinced she had not been cursed and relentlessly sought medical help.

    Ouro’s mother Fatima says, “People told me I was wasting my time and that nothing would change. But then people saw the changes.” After five months in a hospital in neighbouring Benin, Ouro can now walk to school by herself without fear of having a seizure on the way. Fatima says that, though people with epilepsy or disabilities  were once thought of as useless, things are changing and they can integrate into society.

    There are an estimated 378,000 children with disabilities in Togo’s population of six million. The UN’s Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, estimates that between five and 10 per cent of African children have disabilities. They are mainly caused by genetic and birth complications, by diseases such as poliomyelitis, measles, meningitis and cerebral malaria, and by poor health and diet.

    While marking the Day of the African Child on June 16, UNICEF called for an end to neglecting children with disabilities, and to discrimination and violence against them.  Rosangela Berman Bieler is head of UNICEF’s Disability Unit. She published a statement which stated: “Children living with disabilities continue to be the most excluded among all groups of children in Africa. Only a small portion of them are in school and far fewer receive the adequate inclusive education they need.”

    Changing long-held traditional beliefs in Togo will be difficult, but families whose disabled children have received help know that excluding them from daily life is not the answer.

    Laure Akofa Tay is the coordinator of Christian Blind Mission in Togo and Benin. She says, “Progressively, when the mentality has changed, we will overcome this. Then we can move disabled children from the shadows into a society that knows how to treat them.”

    The Togolese government ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2011, and is aware of the added difficulties the disabled must deal with. But the government has not yet established clear measures to help them, or to counter damaging beliefs.

    Ms. Tay says, “The government acknowledges that it is an important issue, but they don’t know how to go about it. We need to work closely with the government institutions like the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education to… [help formulate] their early protection and rehabilitation programmes.”

    She adds, “[Disabled children’s rights are] no different from the rights of all children. We already have human rights, but we need to work on the rights of children with disabilities in Africa. Their rights still need to be communicated.”