Nine-year-old Jean has lost almost all of his sight. His condition started when he was very young and progressively got worse. After several visits to a local healer, his parents took him to a medical doctor in the city hospital. They were asked to pay $120 for a surgical procedure to restore Jean’s sight. Unable to afford the fees, they abandoned his treatment.
Now, Jean is left with minimal vision in just one eye. Living in an urban community in Togo, he pulled out of school two years ago as he could no longer navigate his way without assistance. He is routinely harassed by other children and adults in the community for his disability.
“I often get disoriented and lost. People laugh at me and guide me in the wrong direction. There have been instances where people have placed objects in my path to make me fall,” he says.
Jean is not alone. His daily experience typifies the plight of hundreds of thousands of children with disabilities in West Africa. From ridicule and harassment to acts of physical violence and sexual abuse, children with disabilities in the region are subjected to horrific violations of their human rights on a daily basis, says a report released by child rights organization Plan International and the University of Toronto.
The report “Outside the Circle” shows that children with disabilities are subject to profound levels of poverty, exclusion and discrimination. They are widely excluded from education and denied access to protection services and basic rights enjoyed by other children.
Shockingly instances of infanticide and trading in body parts of children with disabilities were reported during the study.
Plan’s report uncovers the widespread abuse of children with disabilities in West Africa as the U.N. General Assembly held the first-ever meeting of Heads of State and Government on the issue of development and disability in New York on Sept. 23. For so many years the plight of children with disabilities has been well known but not adequately documented. Stories of abuse and neglect in homes, communities and in schools across Africa are common but rarely verified.
Field research conducted in four countries — Guinea, Sierra Leone, Niger and Togo — found that community perceptions are the root causes of endemic violence and discrimination against children with disabilities. Three key factors were found to influence the depth of stigma of individual children with disabilities — their gender, their impairment type and the severity of the impairment.
“Children with disabilities, especially girls, are highly vulnerable to physical, emotional and sexual abuse as well as neglect. There is a lack of recognition in all countries of the extent of this abuse,” says Adama Coulibaly, Plan’s regional director for West Africa.
Education is one of the biggest casualties for children with disabilities. The majority of affected children continue to be excluded from formal education and functions of social life. Very often the families are ashamed or believe the child has no ability to learn. Children with disabilities are forced to stay at home for reasons ranging from the risk of violence/accident and schools’ inability to accommodate their needs to social attitudes and parents’ finding little value in educating them.
During the field work for the report, researchers recorded examples of what locals believed had caused children’s impairments. These included beliefs that it was a punishment from God, the result of “sins” committed by parents, an act by the devil, the child’s being a sorcerer, or the mother’s having looked at a disabled child during pregnancy. It is common for children with disabilities to be regarded as “supernatural,” “bizarre” or “demons.”
“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 organized at the river, where the affected child is left to drown and it is said that the snake is gone,” a social worker told the researchers.
The World Report on Disability in 2011 estimated that 15 percent of the world’s population — one billion people — have a disability. Of these, an overwhelming 106 million are believed to be children.
There are no estimates on the number of disabled children for West Africa or, for that matter, the rest of the African continent, as children with disabilities remain largely unaccounted for due to lack of data collection by the governments as well as parents themselves hiding affected children from records due to associated social stigma.
Even though all the governments in West Africa have ratified relevant U.N. treaties such as — Convention on the Rights of the Child and Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities — aimed at including children with disabilities in societies, very little progress has been made in their actual implementation.
Unfortunately the situation is not much different in a large number of countries across the world.
The needs of one-seventh of the humanity, represented by people and children with disabilities, were ignored in a catastrophic failure by governments while setting the Millennium Development Goals. Last week’s historic U.N. meeting therefore marked an opportunity for the world governments to make amends and uphold their commitment to people, particularly children, with disabilities, not just in West Africa but all over the world.
It is imperative that post-Millennium Development Goals currently being negotiated do not overlook the plight of the disabled people and children.
It is time for concrete action to ensure that children, particularly ones with disabilities, have access to education, protection from violence and abuse, and the opportunity to have their voices heard. This is not just a development agenda, it is a human rights issue.
Davinder Kumar is a Chevening Human Rights Scholar and Plan International’s head of communications for West Africa. The names of case studies have been changed to protect children’s identity.