Children with disabilities find their voice in Togo
Children with disabilities in Africa have long been stigmatized. Across the continent, many with physical or mental disabilities are destined for a life of begging by families who see them as a source of income. Some, particularly in rural areas, are simply neglected. Often, a handicapped child will be hidden away by an ashamed family - or abused. Nearing adulthood, they will find it difficult to find a job.
In Togo, West Africa, handicapped children are finally being recognized as a real social issue, as Day of the African Child is celebrated across the region on June 16 2012.
Village chief Fousseni Adam Alakpa says: “Within our communities, this issue is a very serious problem – to the extent that a child born with a handicap is considered a divine curse. As a result, these children are often hidden, because you do not want other people to see, and neighborhood gossip makes the parents of the child uncomfortable.”
Boboïma, 14, is a student at the local high school in Tchébebé.“People throw away their children who are in the situation of having a handicap,” he says.
Mr. Lanwi, a gardener, lives in the village of Adjengré. He is the President of the parents’ club and has a 20 year-old son with a disability. He says: “In our village when you have a handicapped child in your home, it’s a source of shame. I myself am in this situation. But I’ve advised the others not to hide their children away, because alone we cannot help our children.”
Plan International is educating communities about disabilities and the needs of disabled children. The project – known as the Restore Children with Disabilities Across Community-based Rehabilitation Approach (RESH) - aims to reintegrate children with disabilities into the community.
Mazoulmani, 16, is a student with a disability who studies at Adjengré high school. “The RESH project began in 2009. When they came they told us they were here to stand up for us and help us, so that our conditions, which are awful, become better.”
The pilot project is based in central Togo around Sokodé and covers 16 villages in the districts of Tchamba and Sotouboua. Project co-ordinator Thérèse Adjayi says: “The aim of these projects is to improve the lives of handicapped children and the understanding of the communities about the rights of handicapped children. We aim to reduce discrimination against these children and develop a partnership and network system in order to develop rehabilitation programmes into the community.”
The project has organized a census of handicapped children in order to follow their progress and give support. It has identified 1503 handicapped children – including 592 girls.
Mr. Lanwi says: “Before I did not know what to do with my handicapped child. An agent came to my home asking me if I had a handicapped child. I said yes, I did not hide him. He comes every day to check on him and tries to teach him how to walk and live with his situation. At one point they brought braces for his legs. After two months I noticed he had begun to walk well. I am very, very proud that my child walks as he should and I thank those who have helped me.”
The project provides braces for 870 children who have difficulties moving and increases the awareness of parents about using braces. This year the project has also referred several children to the orthopaedic specialist, who also educated parents about exercises to carry out at home.
Baboïma says: “When the project agents came, they gathered us together, made a plan and increased awareness. In the village people now consider handicapped children to be like able-bodied children. Now parents take their children into care. They bring together able-bodied and handicapped children; they understood that we must love each other and consider all children as human beings.”