A tale of women with disabled children at heart
Milton Handireki (17) suffers from severe physical and mental disabilities.
He is an orphan who lives with his grandmother in Chivhu. He cannot feed or dress himself and needs assistance in doing all day-to-day activities including going to the toilet. Milton wears continental pampers that need constant changing.
Milton has difficulties in walking and needs a wheelchair for mobility and frames for indoor use to support his weak body. He needs regular physiotherapy and hydrotherapy to improve his bones and muscle movement.
To maintain good health, he has a special diet and at times he cannot take his food and therefore needs special energy drinks for nutrition as he cannot swallow dry foods.
Milton is speech impaired, cannot read or write and is in need of regular sign language training to improve his communication skills, yet he lives with his elderly grandmother who has no source of income.
Coincidentally, in the same area there is a 23-year-old woman (name withheld because she is a victim of sexual violence) suffering from learning disability, bipolar (mental illness) and depression.
She has been sexually abused several times because of her vulnerability and when she recollects her abused past, she gets very depressed. When she is in that mood she does not get out of bed and can go for several days without food.
She stopped going to school in Grade 5 after repeating several times until she was in her late teens but failed to acquire reading and writing skills.
Despite all the challenges, she is very good at sewing and likes poultry production and gardening. Like any other girl she likes grooming herself and wearing trendy clothes.
She needs regular counselling and psychiatry services to monitor her state of mind. Her mother finds it very difficult to live her alone and go to work fearing for her safety.
These are but just two of the 1,8 million estimated population of persons with disabilities in Zimbabwe.
Their situation has prompted four women, Lindiwe Masamba, Nobuhle Tshuma, Barbrah Maposa and Sophia Chingono to set aside their careers to care for disabled children.
To achieve their set objectives, the four women established Asante Special Needs Trust, which was opened on April 20, 2012 with 20 children with different types of disabilities.
“On returning from abroad we decided to partner and use the savings we obtained through working in the UK for 10 years to open a centre that assists children with disabilities. The centre offers day and boarding facilities and it was founded without any sponsorship,” centre manager and founder Nobuhle Tshuma said.
The centre temporarily closed in June 2013 due to financial constraints and after picking the bits and pieces the centre re-opened with eight children.
“The other eight children are currently staying at their homes where they are not going to school or receiving any special care owing to their condition,” she said.
Women bear the brunt of taking care of children with disabilities single-handedly after being divorced for giving birth to a physically challenged child.
“According to our research, most of the parents are single mothers left by their partners after giving birth to a physically or mentally challenged baby. Several men walked away to marry other women due to the stigma associated with disability in society,” said Tshuma.
A 45-year-old father of three who stays in Kuwadzana Extension spoke on condition of anonymity and blames society for forcing men to neglect children born with physical or mental disabilities.
“As a man it is very difficult to just accept a baby born with disabilities because society will view you as weak and you will be a laughing stock,” he said.
Most parents with physically challenged children in Zimbabwe do not know what to do with their children.
Some of them are embarrassed by their children’s condition resorting to keeping them in-doors.
“Most parents are not in a position to send their disabled children to special school as the fees are pegged beyond what they can afford. It is also worrying that most parents are not willing to send physically challenged children to school as they view it as a waste of time and money,” said Tshuma.
She added that Asante had opened doors to such children and was willing to help them realise their dreams.
Asante, which is a Swahili name meaning “thank you”, has highly qualified personnel in disability issues as a way to give back to the society.
The decision to start an organisation that cares for the disabled children was influenced by personal experiences.
“While I was studying in UK, I decided to look for a part-time job as a care-giver in a nursing home where they looked after disabled children and I came across a situation where children with disabilities were being abused by the care-givers. That is when it occurred to me that I must spend the rest of my life advocating for children with disabilities,” she said.
Sophia and Lindiwe also worked in UK for over 10 years assisting children with disabilities until they finally decided to come back home armed with the knowledge and skills to offer their service to children with disabilities.
“We started as care-givers in nursing homes and studied our way up to being home managers. I was at one time managing three residential homes that provided care for children with all types of disabilities,” said Lindiwe Masamba, who is also the centre matron.
Sophia is a registered mental health nurse and worked in hospitals in London. Barbara has volunteered with non-profit making organisations that assist children with disabilities and together they created a force that is working towards eradicating stigma and discrimination against persons with disabilities, children in particular.
The quartet challenged the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Government departments and the donor community to fight the stigma against children with disabilities through workshops and create awareness.
They said that the nation needed to be educated on disability issues and made to understand that a child with disabilities is a human being and has rights like any other able bodied child.
“With the availability of funds, we intend to establish more centres across the country. The centre has the potential to improve the lives of children with disabilities and offer them an opportunity to live comfortable lives. We will also give social support to the parents and guardians of children with disabilities,” said Masamba.