West Africa's disabled children face abuse, risk of death

by Misha Hussain | http://twitter.com/mishahussain | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 24 September 2013 10:47 GMT

This March 16, 2009 file photo shows a boy with a physical handicap known as Andre, 17, sitting in his wheelchair beside Jeane Ekotor, 11, at the Center for the Rehabilitation of the Handicapped in Cameroon's capital Yaounde. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

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Plan International says it was common for children with disabilities to be regarded as "supernatural", "bizarre" or "demons"

DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Disabled children across West Africa face widespread discrimination, violence and abuse, and can be victims of infanticide and sacrificial killings, a child rights organisation said.

In a report based on research carried out in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Niger and Togo, Plan International said it was common for children with disabilities to be regarded as "supernatural", "bizarre" or "demons" and blamed community perceptions for endemic violence and discrimination against them.

"Three key factors influence the depth of stigma of individual children with disabilities - the gender, the impairment type and the severity of the impairment," said Alice Behrendt, Plan International's West Africa researcher.

She was speaking at the release of the report,'Outside the circle', which coincides with the first ever High Level Meeting of the UN General Assembly on development and disability, in New York this week.

Girls were at greater risk from discrimination and violence, Behrendt said. "They need to be marriage material, and if they are not due to disability, then they are devalued and exposed to physical or sexual abuse. As they cannot report it, nobody will believe them or nobody will make sure their voices are heard," Behrendt told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

She said children with sensory disabilities were more likely to be discriminated against than children with physical disabilities as they were deemed to be more independent.

"Children who are deaf and mute and children with severe mental impairments are the most vulnerable as they cannot tell on their abusers," Behrendt said. "Certain disabilities, such as blindness, are exploited by parents to tap into the compassion of society when going out to beg," she added.


Researchers also found reports of infanticide and sacrificial killings of disabled children, a practice that has been well documented in East Africa, but not West Africa.

"In my community, children with cerebral palsy who cannot stand are called snakes because they lie on the ground. To eliminate such children, ceremonies are organised at the river, where the affected child is left to drown and it is said that the snake is gone," the report quotes a social worker from Togo as saying.

Behrendt said children with albinism - a congenital disorder caused by the absence of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes - were at particular risk of infanticide and the trading of body parts.

"People believe that albinos have special powers so there are incidents of traditional healers being recruited to support election bids using albinos for ritual sacrificing," she said.

As a result of the threats, parents often kept their children at home, instead of sending them to school and letting them integrate in society.

"We need to make sure that children with disabilities receive an inclusive education and are part of the community so that not only the most capable can thrive and survive," Behrendt said.


Lack of data, inaccuracy of data and conflicting data create major obstacles when it came to understanding the prevalence of disability in West Africa and the allocation of resources to tackle the issues, the report said.

There are very few publications in scientific or peer reviewed journals focusing on Africa. Under-reported data on children with disabilities has led to under-investment in services and support for them, the report said.

Where data does exist, there tends to be wide discrepancies between information gathered from national censuses and U.N. agencies.

Studies by UNICEF in Cameroon, Ghana and Sierra Leone show impairment rates of 23-24 percent among children aged between two and nine. In contrast, the prevalence rate is 1-2 percent according to national government censuses, the report said.

"There is no consensus on how to define disability. Surveys done by the U.N. include conditions such as epilepsy, chronic illness and severe behavioural disorders whilst national surveys only focus on physical disabilities," said Behrendt.

The World Disability Report 2011, produced by the World Health Organisation and the World Bank, estimates that 15 percent of any population has one or more impairments.

In addition to poor data and investment, there has been a lack of political will to support any advancement in the treatment of disabled children.

"Very little progress has been made for inclusion of children with disabilities in the region despite legal commitments made by the governments," Behrendt said.




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