It was an emotional occasion in Harare yesterday as mothers of children with disabilities shared their experiences of caring for them and how to handle the stigma from members of communities in which they live.
This comes as Angel of Hope Foundation led by its Patron, First Lady Auxillia Mnangagwa, has partnered relevant organisations to seek ways of economically empowering mothers of children with disabilities by imparting pertinent skills, including financial literacy and how to fend for their children.
Amai Mnangagwa is the country’s health ambassador with a passion for children, women, the elderly, the vulnerable and disabled persons.
Yesterday she convened a meeting with the mothers.
Being a mother, she identifies with challenges faced by women in raising children.
In a speech read on her behalf by Public Service and Social Welfare Minister Paul Mavima at an interactive meeting with mothers of children with disabilities, the First Lady, said she was determined to make a positive difference in the lives of vulnerable groups including persons with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities.
“As the mother of the nation and also the founder of the Angel of Hope Foundation, I strive to reach out to all who are in need and in doing so I pray to God to continue to give me the required strength and wisdom.
“As a mother myself, I understand what it means to have children that need support including in these difficult times of the Covid-19 pandemic. I am also aware that children with disabilities have additional needs that are associated with disability,” she said.
Covid-19, the First Lady said, had resulted in a need of exploring ways of rebuilding and establishing new livelihood sources.
In such endeavours, mothers of children with disabilities should not be forgotten. Her focus on them followed research by leading disability expert Dr Christine Peta, which indicated that most mothers who give birth to children with disabilities are abandoned by their husbands, who commonly blame them for the disability.
Research also showed that disability was commonly attributed to evil spirits, witchcraft and breaking traditional taboos, hence the marginalisation of persons with disabilities and their mothers.
Most societies accuse mothers who give birth to disabled children as being a bad omen and banish them from their husband’s village.
“Some mothers helplessly watch as their children with disabilities are sexually abused by fathers, stepfathers, partners or relatives, the reason being that some mothers fear reporting because they are not economically empowered. Hence poverty forces them to live with the abuse of their children rather than to report and risk losing the breadwinner to prosecution,” she said.
The First Lady said mothers with disabled children endured economic abuse as some husbands or partners withdraw financial support as punishment for bearing a disabled child.
It was with these challenges in mind that the First Lady said she would continue to work in collaboration with other organisations to design and implement programmes that enhance the health and well-being of both mothers and their children.
Amai Mnangagwa gave the women an assortment of food and toiletries.
Earlier, these mothers gave heartrending accounts of their lives as parents of children with special needs.
Mrs Violet Chikandiwa, said finding accommodation was a mammoth task for her.
“We are grateful for being remembered by the First Lady today. In most locations where we live, it is hard to secure accommodation because the moment you notify them that you have a disabled child, landlords turn you away.
“It’s even worse for me because my child requires to be lifted and as the child grows you end up having chest pains. The toilets we use are not suitable for disabled children. Your movements are limited because you have no one to tend to the child while you are away.
“The stigma and discrimination is too much in our societies and we pray that such programmes by Amai will change their mindsets,” she said.
Agreeing with what the First Lady said in her remarks, Mrs Chikandiwa said in most cases mothers are blamed by in-laws for giving birth to a disabled child.
Mrs Eunice Maziwisa also gave a touching account of her experiences.
“My child is 15-years-old and has Down syndrome. I used to be a tailor working in town, but when I gave birth, I had to quit working to give her maximum attention.
“Stigma starts in the family and some marriages are broken if a woman gives birth to a child with disability.
“In some families you are labelled a witch and our children are mocked in the streets because of their condition. They have special needs as most of those with disabilities have weak immune systems, hence frequent hospital visits. We want to thank Amai for opening doors for us so that we are able to cater for our children’s special needs,” she said.
Cde Joshua Malinga who is the special advisor in the Office of the President and Cabinet on disability issues, shared his personal experience.
“We are treated like useless people who can’t do anything for themselves. Disability is not in my body: it is imposed on me by society. Disability cannot be solved by one ministry. It is a cross-developmental issue which every ministry or individual should look at. We need good structures and programmes accessible to all of us,” he said.
In a speech read on her behalf by Mrs Vaidah Mashangwa, Women’s Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises Development Minister Dr Sithembiso Nyoni praised the First Lady for the relentless efforts in supporting initiatives targeting the needy and vulnerable in society, particularly women, girls and children.
“Motherhood comes with numerous challenges, let alone care work for people living with disabilities. It is saddening to note that despite the huge sacrifices mothers make, society does not recognise such efforts . . . These challenges are not insurmountable but require a collaborative approach by stakeholders with various capacities and competencies,” she said.
Minister Nyoni said the First Lady’s leadership and inspiration should rally people to converge in mind and in physical presence to lighten the burden of mothers of children living with disabilities.
Her ministry was committed to working with the First Lady and other stakeholders to ensure vulnerable members of society are economically empowered.
Women’s Bank chief executive Dr Mandas Marikanda said her bank was willing to find solutions and fund them.
“It is time for women to smile. Women’s Bank is your corner of happiness. We are here to empower you. From interacting with mothers with disabled children, we came to understand their concerns. We understood that you cannot work far away from your children and we have solutions for you,” she said.
“We are happy Amai has remembered you and introduced this programme. In Rusape, they formed groups and looked for a piece of land and with our assistance, they are now in castor bean farming.
“As Women’s Bank, we will give you seeds and you are guaranteed of getting foreign currency. Amai has opened a door for you; therefore use it,” said Dr Marikanda.
Unicef country representative Ms Laylee Moshiri said their focus was on a national disability strategy and inclusive education policy and expressed commitment to work with disabled children.
UNDP country representative Mr Georges van Montfort, also attended the occasion.