Out of fear, shame and strong traditional beliefs, disabled children in Togo are often ridiculed, hidden indoors for years and neglected, cutting them off from normal life and worsening their plight.
“I was told I was good for nothing. Even my brothers and sisters said I was inferior to them, and they mocked me,” said Sofia Adama*, 18, who was left disabled by a botched injection when she was a baby.
Between five and 10 percent of children in Africa have disabilities, mainly due to genetic and birth complications, diseases such as poliomyelitis, measles, meningitis and cerebral malaria, as well as poor health and diet, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
“Disability is considered a form of sorcery or the result of a demon in the family,” said Naka Abalo, coordinator of the Community Based Rehabilitation Project run by the Plan International NGO in Sokodé, Togo’s second largest city.
Out of a population of six million there are around 378,000 children with disabilities in Togo estimates Christian Blind Mission (CBM), an international aid group working with disabled people.
In a small village outside Sokodé, Afi Ouro*, 13, who has epilepsy, hides in a dark room in her family home, where she has often taken refuge from being humiliated by the villagers, who publicly mock her club feet and have ostracized her entire family.
Their neighbours believed that throwing stones at Ouro when she was experiencing an epileptic seizure would prevent her from spreading epilepsy. Her parents, who were convinced she had not been cursed, relentlessly sought medical help.
“People told me I was wasting my time and that nothing would change, but then people saw the changes,” said Fatima*, Ouro’s mother. After spending five months in hospital in neighbouring Benin, Ouro can now walk to school by herself without fear of having a seizure on the way.
“Other people still hide their children with disabilities because they first insulted us, and they think that they will also be insulted. Disabled people were once thought of as useless. Now, things are changing and they can integrate into society,” Fatima said.
While marking the Day of the African Child on 16 June, UNICEF called for an end to neglecting children with disabilities, and discrimination and violence against them.
“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,” Rosangela Berman Bieler, the head of UNICEF’s Disability Unit, said in a communiqué.
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 unhelpful. “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,” said Laure Akofa Tay, CBM's coordinator for Togo and Benin.
“[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.”
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 it has yet to establish clear measures to help them, or counter the damaging beliefs.
“The government acknowledges that it is an important issue but they don't know how to go about it,” said Tay. “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.”
“We know that disabilities and poverty are a vicious cycle,” Tay said. “And here, because the children with disabilities are living in a low-income country, their situation is worse.”