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Stigma, poverty leave 'cursed' disabled children neglected in Kenya's orphanages

by Nita Bhalla | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 28 September 2018 15:16 GMT

A child with cerebral palsy sits in wheelchair in an orphanage in eastern Nairobi, Kenya on Sept 26, 2018. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/NITA BHALLA

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"Mothers are often sent home without any information or care plan as doctors feel children with disabilities are "not worth it" or are "not going to make it"

By Nita Bhalla

NAIROBI, Sept 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - At a dilapidated orphanage on the outskirts of eastern Nairobi, children with twisted limbs and clawed hands are slumped in wheelchairs, lie foetal-like on mattresses on the floor, or sit in chairs rocking back and forth repeatedly.

The children - ranging from 3 to 19 years old - are devoid of attention and lack stimulation. They look up wide-eyed, moaning and grunting - many unable to speak or move due to illnesses such as cerebral palsy and Down's syndrome.

A third of the children are not independently mobile and are kept in a room all day. Others with disabilities such as autism wander around a muddy patch of the compound. At 4 pm, they are locked in cramped dormitories - four to a bed - until 6 am.

Thousands of disabled children in Kenya - abandoned by their parents due to poverty and stigma - are being neglected and uncared for in orphanages across the east African country, according to a study by Disability Rights International (DRI).

"Our research found having a disabled child is a horrible stigma in Kenya. They are a source of fear and shame and are a curse - and parents are pressurised to abandon these children or even kill them," said Eric Rosenthal, DRI's executive director.

"We also found that abandoned children are being placed in orphanages which are often unregistered and unregulated, where they are neglected and at risk of abuse and exploitation," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

An official from Kenya's department of child services, who did not want to be named, said all registered orphanages were being inspected regularly, but it was possible some charities were running unregistered orphanages.

"We inspect all institutions caring for children which are registered," he said.

"Those that are registered are very closely monitored but could be some which are fake orphanages are getting foreign donations but not looking after the children."

A child with autism slumps over a desk at an orphanage in eastern Nairobi, Kenya on Sept 26, 2018. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/NITA BHALLA


According to government statistics, around 3.5 percent of Kenya's 40 million people have a disability, but campaigners estimate the true figure is closer to 10 percent.

The government has social welfare programs to support people living with disabilities, but campaigners say they remain largely unimplemented and few disabled people know of their entitlements.

A lack of awareness has also allowed age-old myths labelling disabled people as "cursed" or "bewitched" to persist, leaving many on the margins, unable to complete their schooling, get a job, or secure land or other assets.

The DRI study, released on Thursday, was based on inspections of more than 20 orphanages and interviews with 60 mothers of disabled children.

It found mothers received little or no support on how to care for their children. Many were shunned by their families and communities while doctors were unsympathetic.

"Mothers complain doctors and nurses do not want to treat them or their children with disabilities because they believe disability is dangerous or even 'contagious'," said the study.

"Mothers are often sent home without any information or care plan as doctors feel children with disabilities are "not worth it" or are "not going to make it", it added.

A child with cerebral palsy sits on the floor an orphanage in eastern Nairobi, Kenya on Sept 26, 2018. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/NITA BHALLA


As a result, disabled children were being abandoned in orphanages where they could be forcefully tied down in wheelchairs, locked in darkened rooms or left neglected and unclean for hours at a time.

Orphanage owners admit that they often do not have the enough resources to care for the children, and say they are dependent on donations from local and foreign donors.

"Most of the children at my orphanage have been left in hospitals, car parks and even pit latrines," said Anne Nyeri, executive director of the Compassionate Hands for the Disabled Foundation orphanage in Nairobi.

"We do what we can to look after these children, but we know it's not enough."

But Rosenthal said orphanages were out-dated and that Kenya - as well as international donors who fund hundreds of orphanages in the country - needed to rethink policy on institutional child care.

He called for families to be given information and support to care for their disabled children and for greater awareness to dispel negative perceptions around disability.

"All the science shows that children need to grow up in a loving family environment, and not in orphanages, which are banned in many countries including the United States," said Rosenthal.

"All children - disabled or not - should be in families, not orphanages."

(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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