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Tackling superstitions and providing life-changing services to children with CP in the North of Ghana

AfriKids has been improving the lives of children with cerebral palsy (CP) in the northern regions of Ghana through advocacy work and rehabilitation services. For improving the Quality of Life for these children, AfriKids Ghana was awarded a World Cerebral Palsy Day 2018 Merit Award.

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The project

Long held beliefs around children born with disabilities and conditions such as CP exist in many African cultures. Since 1998, the AfriKids Ghana team has been working on raising awareness of CP and discrediting what is known as the Spirit Child Phenomenon (SCP) in the northern regions of the country.

The Spirit Child Phenomenon marks children who are different or who need extra care as bad omens, leaving them at risk of abuse, neglect or of being killed by traditional healers known as ‘concoction men’.

These beliefs, as well as a lack of accessible treatment and support options are what drives the AfriKids Ghana team. Their goals are threefold, to:

  1. Provide accessible facilities for physiotherapy, training and support for children with CP and their families
  2. Tackle widespread traditional beliefs and fears that put the lives of children with CP at risk
  3. Give communities and their key leaders the space and resources to increase their understanding of child rights, health care issues and disability.

Battling beliefs

In order to raise awareness of the needs of children with CP, the communities’ traditional belief system around disability needed to be challenged. To do this the AfriKids team had to win the trust of the people.

Led by Program Manager, Joe Asakibeem, the team set out to prove themselves and earn the confidence of the locals.  In the process, they were chased out of communities and even drank dangerous herbal concoctions to prove their integrity to the soothsayers and traditional healers.

Respectfully hearing everyone’s views was fundamental to designing the solutions.

Ultimately, they were successful and ensured they spoke to everyone, in order to find solutions to the challenges the communities faced, such as poverty and poor access to healthcare. They consulted parents, chiefs, village elders, ‘queen mother’ leaders of women’s groups and local authorities.

Of course, the most critical group to convince was the soothsayers and ‘concoction men’ who were labelling children as spirits and giving families remedies that would kill them.

A new Ghana

Through their extensive work the AfriKids Ghana team have brought about remarkable cultural and service changes in the Kassena Nankana and Bongo Districts.

They have built support in the communities for children with disabilities and their families, as well as having an influence on policy-making regarding child rights, healthcare issues and disability.

Their specific achievements include:

  • Establishment of two rehabilitation centres which provide physiotherapy and health checks, as well as family education, counselling and support groups. Volunteers also train parents on how to make adaptable and supportive furniture for their children with CP.
  • 18 communities in the northern region of Ghana declared an end to the Spirit Child Phenomenon. There have been no known infanticides or spirit child killings in the region for a number of years.
  • The reinvention of traditional healers as Right to Life Promoters. These men are now ambassadors for child protection. AfriKids has also helped secure alternative livelihoods for them to ensure they need not return to their previous harmful practices.
  • Adults with disabilities speaking as role models, demonstrating the potential that was being lost in the children killed.

“I cannot continue to practice what is bringing my community backwards, by killing innocent children. I will forever campaign against this practice in my community. No child should be killed again” — Right to Life Promoter

Embraced by the community

AfriKids also report a positive impact on the general perceptions of children with CP in the communities, with families no longer ashamed of their child and with community members offering support or resources.

“In the past, I used to fear those children, with the perception that they can kill me, but now I know that it is not the case. I now take my child to the market and other gatherings with pride. Due to the fear that is now moved out of me, I now comfortably feed my child, I now sleep very well knowing that the child cannot do any harm to me. My child now benefits from the best of health care as I always visit the health facility seeking for medical care in times of sickness. I have now cultivated a strong feeling of love for my child”. — Mother of a child with a disability

Through the rehabilitation centres, children with CP now have better overall health outcomes, mobility and independence, relieving some of the burden of care from families. There is also more opportunities for them to attend school and participate in community events.

“I am always excited by seeing many vulnerable children being able to live dignified lives as a result of my project’s services. I’m even more happy when I see that many community members are now showing appreciable levels of care and support for children that hitherto were neglected and sometimes condemned to death.” — Joe Asakibeem