The fate of mothers with disabled children

In Malawi, many parents are raising children with physical disability or health challenges what is a heavy burden.
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Moreover, many people view children with disabilities as a curse upon parents, imposed by a supernatural power to punish them for a wrong. Strange traditional mindsets amidst rampant poverty are to blame for this bizarre behaviour. This is especially unfair as caring for people with disabilities is being left almost only to women. The males mostly escape from their childcare responsibilities.

This also happened to 30-year-old Luwiza Davidson, a mother of a 7-year-old disabled girl. The child has cerebral palsy, a condition that makes it hard for her to move and maintain balance. “Since my child was born with this disability, my husband has changed. He has completely abandoned me. The love that we had has vanished. He married another woman and stopped supporting me and our child,” she says.

Families with disabled children sometimes face segregation from community members too. 34-year-old Loveness Mikaeli, a mother of three says that she is lucky because her husband is supportive of their first-born child, Hannah, who can neither walk nor stand. However, Mikaeli says that she is insulted and abused by the husband’s relatives and by community members.

“It is a challenge because women as well as their disabled children are all suffering from violence and abuse,” she says, adding: “Even your neighbours do not want to see you around.”

To help support parents with disabled children, an association called Parents of Disabled Children Association of Malawi (PODCAM) was formed. It operates in various regions of Malawi and has wide membership. Whereas membership is open to all genders, the majority of its members are female.

“We have over 18,000 members across the country and the majority of them are women with children with disabilities. Most of them have been abandoned by their husbands too,” says Emily Maunde, chairperson of the country’s central region chapter of PODCAM. She says that the majority of the abandoned mothers are poor with no jobs to fetch an income. They are raising their children single-handedly.

“These women have bitterness because of what they go through. Some husbands openly say that giving birth to a disabled child is a sign that the mother is cursed. They use this excuse to abandon the woman and child to remarry,” Lyness Manduwa, an executive director of PODCAM, says.

Disability rights, just as women’s rights are enshrined in the country’s constitution and other supporting laws. The laws criminalise any form of abuse and violence against disabled people and women. Activists however argue that these legal provisions are not enough to fight the strange practice.

“As an organisation we have tried to send these men to court so that the court orders them to support their families. In some cases, the courts have managed to force the men to give support to their wives but in other cases it has not worked at all,” Maunde says.

Raphael Mweninguwe is a freelance journalist based in Malawi.

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