Dakar, Senegal – Ten-year-old Gisele has grown up being told she was cursed by God. Paralysed from the waist down when she was an infant, she lives in a rural area of Guinea and spends all day at home, often sitting motionless for hours.
She is left alone as her siblings and cousins go to school and the adults work at a local farm. When she needs to move, Gisele drags herself across the floor with her hands. From the threshold of her house she watches other children play and have fun – something she has never been able to do.
For a child of her age, Gisele looks gaunt and lifeless. Most days, she is fed just once. Friendless and neglected, she is lacking nutrition, hygiene, clothing and care.
Her family see her as a life-long liability they wish they never had. They do not see any value in sending her to school for the bother of carrying her physically and the challenges she would face – being mocked by other children among them.
Gisele still believes that one day she will be able to go to school and become a French teacher. Her faint hopes are competing against the “curse of God” she is rudely reminded of every single day of her life. Gisele, however, has some luck on her side for the fact she is still alive. In parts of Togo, she would have been simply drowned for her disability.
Drowning Togo’s ‘snakes’
“In my community, children who have cerebral palsy and cannot stand are called snakes because they lie on the ground,” Manuel, a social worker in Togo, said. “To eliminate such a child, ceremonies are organised at the river, where the child is left to drown and it is said that the snake is gone.”
In Sierra Leone, it is common for children who are blind or suffering polio to be branded a “devil”.
As the UN General Assembly holds the first ever meeting of Heads of Government and State on disability and development on Monday, a report – “Outside the Circle” by child rights organisation Plan International and the University of Toronto reveals the horrific scale of discrimination and abuse faced by children with disabilities in West Africa. This includes shocking reports of infanticide and trading in body parts of children with disabilities.
The research shows that children with disabilities are subject to profound levels of poverty, exclusion and discrimination in a region marked by deprivation and harmful practices rooted in traditional beliefs.
To eliminate such a child, ceremonies are organised at the river, where the child is left to drown and it is said that the snake is gone.
Examples reported to researchers on what had caused children’s impairments included beliefs that it was a punishment from God; the result of “sins” committed by parents; an act of the devil; that the child was a sorcerer; witchcraft on the child or family; or the mother had looked at a disabled child during pregnancy.
Across the region, it is common for children with disabilities to be regarded as “supernatural”, “bizarre” or “demons”. They are widely excluded from social life, and denied access to basic human rights such as education. Ten-year-old Aichatou, who lives about 100km from the Nigerian city of Niamey with her family, was born with a club foot.
Her grandmother described her condition as work of an “evil genie” out to punish the family.
Aichatou has been through numerous painful experiences, including being kicked by other children in the village and referred to as a goat as she cried and crawled to safety.
Same old story
Throughout communities in West Africa, the stories of abuse and neglect of children with disabilities are strikingly similar. Eight-year-old Laurent progressively lost his sight in childhood as his family could not afford the treatment for his condition. Now totally blind, he is sent to beg at the city centre in Guinea by his family daily.
Sometimes his siblings accompany him, but most often he is left on his own. He gets harassed and mistreated by other children. Occasionally he also gets beaten by older children, and sometimes even by adults.
“I would like to attend school like other children. I want to be a political leader,” he says.
Laurent’s family, however, think otherwise. They believe that begging is the only option for him as they continue to push him to bring money every day.
According to the World Health Organisation and the World Bank, an estimated 15 percent of the world’s population has a disability, and an estimated 106 million children have moderate and severe disabilities.
In West Africa, children with disabilities are not adequately accounted for in any government records. As a result, services to children with disabilities are substantially under-resourced and decisions are being made based on inadequate information.
There is no consistent definition of disability and no data collection mechanisms in West Africa. Birth registration in the region is among the lowest in the world, and in case of children with disabilities, the associated stigma and shame often means parents never disclose such children in any public documents. As a result, disabled children remain invisible to authorities and more vulnerable to abuse and violation of their rights.
All governments in West Africa have committed to including children with disabilities in their societies by ratifying relevant UN treaties, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
However, in the majority of cases, little has been achieved. “Stories of abuse and neglect are common but not often documented and verified,” says Aidan Leavy, member of Plan’s Disability Inclusion Working Group.
Children with physical impairments, especially those still able to move unassisted, are relatively less discriminated against than those with intellectual, mental and sensory disabilities, who could not easily tell of their abuse. Girls with disabilities, meanwhile, are highly vulnerable to physical, emotional and sexual abuse, as well as neglect.
“There is a difference between girls and boys who are disabled. For example, the boy, he can go for a walk without problems, but the girl, she may be a victim of rape or unwanted pregnancy, and then he who rapes her declines his responsibility,” says the father of a girl with a disability in Guinea, who asked not to be identified.
The UN states all children have the same human right to develop their potential and access education. Yet despite this, children with disabilities are less likely to start school, have lower rates of school attendance, and fewer chances to achieve higher levels of education.
This trend is not just restricted to West Africa. Globally, wide gaps exist in school attendance between children with disabilities and their non-disabled peers. In some countries, such as Indonesia, the difference is as high as 60 percent for primary school attendance. This trend continues into secondary education.
The UN’s Millennium Development Goals failed to acknowledge the plight of people with disabilities, particularly children. Disability still today remains largely invisible and ignored in most mainstream development processes.
The historic UN General Assembly session on disability and development is, therefore, an opportunity for world governments to redeem their commitment to human rights for all.
* Names in this article were changed to protect identities
Davinder Kumar is Plan International’s head of communications for the West Africa region