The problem of disability is a complicated dilemma to Africa, known for the value it attaches to procreation. The ability to bear children is a blessing from God or the gods and an assurance of continued lineage, especially if one is lucky enough to bring forth male offspring. This beautiful picture turns bleak when one is the bearer of children with disabilities. Not only are the children regarded upon as outcasts, misfits, witches, burdens, but sometimes the parents, especially the mothers are tagged with derogatory names and accused of paying for their sins. In such situations, children with disabilities are subjected to all types of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual, violence, denial of resources) in and out of the family setting.
The East Region of Cameroon is no stranger to such negative perceptions and attitudes towards children with disabilities. With 109,002 km² of territory, it is the largest region in the nation as well as the most sparsely populated. Historically, the peoples of the East have been settled in Cameroonian territory for longer than any other of the country’s many ethnic groups, the first inhabitants being the Baka (or Babinga) pygmies.
The region had a population of 835,642 inhabitants in 2015, according to the National Institute of statistics. In the area of development, the mostly thick forests of the region inhibit settlement and make the region an unattractive target for both national and international development plans. Millennial discriminatory gender norms are still very rampant. Girls and women find their worth in being attached to a man, which makes early marriage common. Unfortunately, such marriages do not last. The rate of divorce is very high, with young women striving to take care of many children in often very precarious situations perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
Since most of the indigenous women in the East region don’t have a means of livelihood, the easiest occupation they can exercise is prostitution, which comes with a cohort of consequences: unwanted pregnancies, crude abortions, sexually transmitted diseases etc. The situation is worse for women who have children with disabilities. Not only do they suffer the sting of spousal abandonment with its correlated poverty, but they are most often subjected to constant prejudices leading to higher rates of depression, mental disorders and sometimes earlier rates of deaths.
For close to four decades, the congregation of the Passionate Sisters has been working in many communities of the region to give meaning to the gloomy lives of children with disabilities. As in every early European missionary endeavor, the charity model of disability was practiced. Missionaries went into the hinterlands, identified children with disabilities that were most often abandoned and brought them to the special centers they initiated to cater for their needs without the contribution of their families of origin. Most often parents were very happy to get rid of these children who were considered not good enough to invest in, as nothing could come out of them. Getting them into special centers was a good riddance as the honor of the family could be restored once the object of embarrassment was taken far from their midst. That’s why they were often called children of the missionaries.
On the other hand, most children with disabilities who were brought to the centers grew with the awareness that they were liabilities, objects of pity and should be taken care of all their lives. This myopic and beggarly mindset limited their ability to explore and exploit their potentials. Over the years, the number of children dumped by parents grew exponentially in the centers while foreign funding dwindled. With the dwindling funding and the departure of most European missionaries, the centers were passed over to national leadership with little or no resource to continue running them. In such a context, the situation of the majority of children with disabilities grew worse as they could no longer be kept in special centers.
The introduction of Community-Based Rehabilitation (CBR) by WHO in 1978 to enhance the quality of life for people with disabilities and their families; meet their basic needs and ensure their inclusion and participation came as a panacea to turn the tides of exclusion for this category of persons from family to community settings. As the saying goes, old habits die hard.
While the CBR approach has evolved and embraced in most communities across Africa as a multi-sectoral initiative bringing on board relevant stakeholders (people with disabilities, their families and communities, and relevant government and non-government health, education, vocational, social and other services) to work as a team to improve the equalization of opportunities and social inclusion of people with disabilities while combating the perpetual cycle of poverty and disability, much still needs to be done in this domain in the East Region of Cameroon.
The Cameroon Baptist Convention (CBC) Health Services became the Strategic Partner Organization (SPO) of the Dutch based Liliane Foundation (LF) in Cameroon in 2014. As SPO, the CBC Health Services receives funding from LF to work with Partner Organizations (POs) in the country to meet the health, educational, social, and livelihood needs of children with disabilities aged 0-25 years in the country. Chosen POs are supposed to use the CBR approach, which contrary to the charity approach is sustainable.
As Partner Organization in the East Region, the Congregation of the Passionate Sisters has been leaving no stone unturned to break the chains of negative cultural believes and get the parents of children with disabilities involved in the lives of their children. Sister Cypriana explains how daunting the task has been to sensitize, educate, persuade and even use the power of law in extreme cases to make parents understand that their children with disabilities have the same rights as their able body siblings. With collaboration from the SPO, the congregation recently embarked on a series of advocacy meetings with relevant stakeholders to bring them on board so as to promote the respect of the rights of these children from the family to community settings and promote their participation in mainstream societal development actions.
It is true that little drops make an ocean. The Passionate Sisters believe that as all stakeholders gradually understand their role in the inclusion process and consistently do their part, exclusion of persons with disability will become a thing of the past in the years to come in the East region. In the meantime, they appeal to every member of the community to play an active role in the inclusion process, either by refusing to perpetuate discriminatory practices, denouncing such or contributing financially to meet the needs of children with disabilities who come from indigenous families.