Gladys Koech has been working as an occupational therapist for persons with disabilities in Kenya’s coastal region for more than 10 years. Through the Association of the Physically Disabled of Kenya (APDK), she also works with communities to strengthen their understanding of disabilities and combat widespread stigma.
Many persons with disabilities feel discriminated against and excluded from the community because of the way they are. We create awareness in communities that disability is not “inability” and try to make societies more inclusive. Parents, and particularly mothers of disabled children, face significant stigma. It is not uncommon for husbands to leave their wives because the child has a disability. It also increases the risk of gender-based violence against mothers.
Parents of children with disabilities need more information and awareness to eradicate stigma. The question that parents often ask is, ‘why me?’ We also manage unrealistic hopes of rehabilitation. Some conditions, such as cerebral palsy, for example, are long-term cases and can often worsen. We try to show them that this is a journey they can take on, with our help and with other support services.
So many families have separated during COVID-19. Traditionally, mothers are blamed for giving birth to a child with a disability. They are [often] forced to relocate, and some women have even received death threats from their husbands for exposing their disabled child in public.
State services are only available to those with the appropriate identity cards, and in rural areas, many people are not even aware [of such services]. Also, acquiring passports and accessing transportation to complete registration and paperwork for acquiring identity cards is not easy. Finding even KES 20 [less than 50 cents] can be challenging and taking a child to where services are offered is also a challenge – does the child need a wheelchair? Can s/he access transportation to get there?
Since COVID-19, we have had to increase tele-counselling because of movement restrictions. In Kenya, persons with disabilities during COVID-19 have been worse hit by the loss of livelihoods, as many of them, especially women, work as vendors in the informal sector.
Programmes need to support mothers of children with disabilities, providing education and empowerment, because they are under so much pressure. If you sit in the group discussion and listen to what these mothers are saying, you can see there really is a gap that needs to be filled by the government.
UN Women’s partnership with the Council of Governors in Kenya has boosted resources to helplines around the country. As COVID-19 has increased demand for psychosocial services, Koech has witnessed a growing trend of mothers of children with disabilities being abandoned by their partners. Part of UN Women’s COVID-19 response in Kenya is being carried out in conjunction with UNICEF and UNDP as part of the Joint Devolution Programme supported by the governments of Sweden, Finland, and Italy.