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Africa’s ‘invisible children’ must have more rights

Mr. Lanwi and his disabled son in the village of Adjengré, Togo.
Mr. Lanwi and his disabled son in the village of Adjengré, Togo.
June 15, 2012

Siphilisiwe, 13, from Zimbabwe, used to be called isacuthe – meaning ‘the deaf one’ – by her schoolmates.

“The other children at school didn’t want to play with me,” says the teenager. “I felt so unwanted. At school, my performance was bad as I couldn’t hear everything the teacher said.”

As the 22nd Day of the African Child is marked across the African continent on June 16, 2012, Plan is calling on governments to protect the rights of children like Siphilisiwe who have disabilities.

These ‘invisible children’ are the most vulnerable in African societies - and have long been stigmatized. 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 child with disabilities will be hidden away by an ashamed family - or abused.

Village chief (Togo) Fousseni Adam Alakpa explains: “Within our communities, this issue is a very serious problem – to the extent that a child born with a disability 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.”

Siphilisiwe is one of 1,500 children in Zimbabwe who have benefited from a program distributing hearing aids, run by Plan. The project helped to boost confidence in children with disabilities within Siphilisiwe’s community - and substantially improved her own performance in class.

“Now I want to be a nurse; I want to help the less privileged,” Siphiliswe adds.

Plan Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Gezahegn Kebede, says: “Most children with disabilities are disadvantaged and tend to lose out on education and many other social activities from which able-bodied children benefit.”

“There’s a need to raise more awareness of these invisible children, and come up with alternative strategies from all involved authorities across Africa, to ensure that the learning needs and behavioral issues of children with disabilities are not neglected.”

In Togo, West Africa, Plan is running the Restore Children with Disabilities Across Community-based Rehabilitation Approach (RESH). The pilot project, based in central Togo and covering 16 villages in the districts of Tchamba and Sotouboua, aims to reintegrate children with disabilities into the community.

Boboïma, 14, is a student at the local high school in Tchébebé.

“People throw away their children who have a disability,” he says. “When the Plan agents came, they gathered us together, made a plan and increased awareness. In the village people now consider children with disabilities to be like able-bodied children and parents care for their children. The project brings together able-bodied and children with disabilities; they understood that we must love each other and consider all children as human beings.”

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 orthopedic specialist, who educated parents about exercises to carry out at home.

Mr. Lanwi, a gardener, lives in the village of Adjengré. He is President of the Parents’ Club and has a 20 year-old son with a disability – who is now fitted with a brace.

He says: “In our village when you have a child with a disability 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.”

“I am very very proud that my child walks as he should now - and I thank those who have helped me.”

RESH project coordinator in Togo Thérèse Adjayi says: “The aim of these projects is to improve the lives of children with disabilities and the understanding of the communities about the rights of these children. We aim to reduce discrimination against these children and develop a partnership and network system in order to develop rehabilitation programs into the community.”

Although many African governments now provide free primary education to children with disabilities, more focus is still needed on the issues affecting such children, believes Plan.

Main areas of concern include access to education; violence against children with disabilities; the link between poverty and disability; social attitudes, stigma and discrimination and the right to be heard and to participate.

The 2010 progress report for the UN Millenium Development Goals noted that despite some countries’ progress towards achieving the goal of universal primary education; children with disabilities represent the majority of those excluded from such free education schemes.

Mr. Kebede said: “I urge authorities to allocate adequate resources to strengthen social protection measures for children - particularly those who are most vulnerable. We should ensure universal access to comprehensive quality basic education, including early childhood care as well as pre-school education, and promote the right to participation of all children.”

“Helping children with disabilities gain a sense of belonging greatly improves their ability to become socially integrated and involved in their schools, and promotes positive interaction with others,” he added.

Plan operates programs in countries across Africa to support communities - promoting inclusion and integration of children with disabilities in education, sports and social activities.

Learn more about Plan's work in Togo


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