By Madeleine McMurray
In the USA, Child Abuse Prevention Month has occurred every April since 1983. The month is aimed towards raising awareness for the issue, educating communities on abuse prevention, and raising funds that are desperately needed to fight against child abuse. This year, Child Abuse Prevention Month looks a little different, and it’s timed at a particularly dangerous period.
It’s impossible to deny, the global pandemic is impacting us all.
However, as with everything, some people are at greater risk, some have been more deeply affected, and many will bear the burden of the fall out to a far more serious extent. Currently, much of the world’s population is forced to shelter at home and educational institutions are closed. Behind closed doors, and fueled by growing struggle and fear, many children are positioned in situations where their wellbeing is at a more significant risk than others. Children with disabilities are already more at risk for circumstances of abuse, especially in certain socioeconomic contexts. Taken together, this creates a perfect storm for the children we advocate for every day.
In 2007, the OHCHR published a comprehensive report on abuse towards children with disabilities in East Africa. In Kenya, the data suggested that 15-20% of children living with a disability had experienced severe forms of physical and sexual abuse – with girls with mental impairments being the most at-risk group. The report also found that a majority of children with disabilities were likely to have experienced debilitating criminal neglect – which includes deprivation, starvation, and dangerous living conditions. Since then, Kenya has
made great strides in strengthening the protection of vulnerable children, specifically those with disabilities. However, significant progress still needs to be made in combating harmful stereotypes and traditional medical practices.
What makes children with disabilities particularly vulnerable to situations of abuse?
In Kenya, we know that some of the abuse stems from the harmful mythology surrounding the origins of disability. A deeply held conviction related to the supernatural causes of disability has led to the legitimisation of historically abusive treatment towards those with various impairments. In most severe cases, this has led to the death of so many children who weren’t given a chance to live because of conditions that were apparent immediately after birth. For many children, this abuse is manifested in iniquitous treatment – being excluded in the family setting, not being given the same opportunities or access to necessities, or being treated cruelly.
In 2018, Disability Rights International released a report that documented the devastating pressure that many Kenyan parents face (even today) to murder their children if they are born with a disability. The two-year investigation interviewed 90 mothers of children with a disability, and every single mother noted that it was common for parents to face pressure to kill their child at birth.
Additionally, many disabilities make children inherently more vulnerable – whether they are less able to physically defend themselves or verbalise what is happening to them, abuse is more likely to go unnoticed. Some children with disabilities may not recognise their situation as abusive. This means children with disabilities require a much greater amount of protection so that they are not left in positions where someone with bad intentions is able to exploit their vulnerability. Sadly, this extra protection is harder to enforce during a global lockdown – safeguarding measures for vulnerable children are essential, but it’s easier for these measures to fall to the wayside when people’s attention is diverted elsewhere.
For some families, abuse is unintentional – children with disabilities often require a greater deal of assistance or access to resources, things that the family may not be able to readily deliver. It is hard, especially in situations with increased levels of poverty, to secure the basic necessities, let alone to provide the extra level of care and support a child with a disability might require. Similarly, rife misinformation about the correct treatment for disabilities at best does nothing to improve the child’s health, and at worst can significantly decrease a child’s quality of life. Some parents – in an attempt to help their child – end up subjecting their child to traumatic and unnecessary treatments or conditions.
What can we do?
Though attitudes are slowly changing, it’s a work in progress – global strides towards equal treatment and safeguarding for vulnerable children have been slow across the world, and it’s taken longer still for progress in Kenya. The fight to combat harmful attitudes is ongoing. If abuse is an illness, then education is a cure. The heart of the work Kuhenza does is advocacy – we work in rural communities to advocate for children with disabilities and increase community understanding and knowledge related to disability. By equipping parents with the knowledge they need to raise their children with compassion and care and by informing the community on their responsibility towards their vulnerable community-members, situations of abuse can be decreased significantly.
A central part of the work Kuhenza does is to help families in need to support their child with an education, healthcare, counselling, and nutritional support. This means that we – thanks to the support of the incredible people contributing to our mission – are able to provide the essentials for children with disabilities, where their parents cannot, and we are able to empower parents with the knowledge and support they need to support their children. It is important to foster a culture of self-reliance – in our work, we aim to ensure that parents are not wholly reliant on the support of Kuhenza, but they are working to be self-sufficient, to confidently provide for their family.
If you read our previous blog, you’ll know that our team is busy working to provide extra support for the families we serve during the global pandemic – this involves changing the way we work and diligently ensuring that all of the children under our care are being cared for and protected. We are constantly mindful of the increased risk attached to the global pandemic, and we are doing everything in our power to ensure that none of the vulnerable children in our care (or their parents) is left without our support in this trying time.
Madeleine McMurray has a BA in Liberal Arts from Leiden University and an MSc in Psychology from the University of Nottingham. She has a heart for mental health and disability in developing contexts and she spent the past year interning at two organisations in East Africa. Madeleine currently divides her time at home in England between assisting Kuhenza (Kenya) and EMFERD (Tanzania) on their communications and data analysis.