“Shame on you for going to the witch doctor and sacrificing your son just so that you can get rich.”
These are the words Magreth Paschal read in a text message one day about her son with Down Syndrome. In Tanzania, where she lives, it is still believed that people have Down Syndrome because their parents have gone to the witch doctor to make themselves rich by sacrificing their own child’s mental capabilities.
“Back then I was not comfortable to go out in public with my son because some people looked at me as if I’m a sinful person,” she said. Many parents choose to lock their children with disabilities in the house, further exaggerating their developmental and physical delays. “Locking up children isn’t just restricting their opportunities,” says Elly Kitaly, another mother and advocate for children with Down Syndrome in Tanzania. “It can actually create more disabilities.”
According to the Word Health Organization, 15% of the world lives with some form of disability. Yet disability disproportionately affects vulnerable populations for many reasons, including access to healthcare and interventions, and stigma that keeps children with disabilities from reaching their full potential. Children with disabilities are less likely to attend school, receive health care, and eventually find employment.
In fact, across the world, people with disabilities have statistically poorer health, lower education achievements, less economic participation and higher rates of poverty than people without disabilities. In areas of fragile economic opportunity, these barriers are magnified.
Melodie is a social innovator and physiotherapist working in Rwanda among children and families experiencing disability. She herself has experienced the stigma of disability, as she lost her sight in one eye when she was two. She struggled in school and everyone thought she was unintelligent. But after going to a physiotherapist who helped her learn how to accomodate her disability, she soon started learning well and realized she wasn’t stupid like everyone said.
After finishing school, Melodie began working in Rwanda with children with cerebral palsy. The families were at a loss of how to help them and would often hide them. This work reinforced to Melodie that she was called to the disabled, especially those hidden away. As she says, “they needed to be like others, given the same love as the other children.”
Their three-month program involved physical therapy exercises with the children, and training with the parents on how to best help and work with their children on their own. Eventually, Melodie brought this training to Burundi, working in orphanages and other children in the community. Over time, her work has brought her into closer relationship with the entire family as well, helping with vocational programs for the parents and even raising money to build one family a house.
In 2016, Loom met Melodie when she attended the Celebrating Children Workshop in Arusha, Tanzania. We were inspired by Melodie’s story and her heart for the forgotten and locked- away children of her country. At the CCW, Melodie was equipped with more education on child and brain development, addressing trauma, and program management skills.
“[The] CCW gave me such good tools,” Melodie says, “It helped me to be courageous, and to be ready to use my gift everywhere.” She uses Loom’s “circles of protection” image to engage the families and communities in the child’s well-being.
Melodie, Magreth, and Elly all have one thing in common – they are able to see beyond the disability and recognize the worth and potential of every child.
“I love them so much, “ Melodie beams when asked about the children she serves. “Working with them makes me peace full and joy.”