By Paul Wafula
Lingering misconceptions say that a mother is somehow responsible for her child’s health problems — and the consequences can be cruel. In a recent survey conducted by The Action Foundation (TAF), female participants in a focused group discussion stated “our husbands don’t support us when it comes to taking care of the child with disability. They squarely pin the blame on us and refuse to take give us the support we need. In some circumstances, they discriminate against the CWD e.g. they buy shoes and clothes for the ‘normal child’ and not the CWD”.
What could be the reasons behind these misconceptions? The answers may be based on some assumptions on the men’s part. For instance, a man may wonder why his wife gives birth to a child with disability (CWD) and yet there is no one in his extended family who has a disability. There have also been cases where husbands accuse their wives of extra-marital affairs because of giving birth to a disabled child e.g. a child with dwarfism or albinism. Thirdly, as the survey revealed, the community has negative attitudes on disability in general as they attribute it to witchcraft or curses. Most men may therefore not want to be associated with their CWDs. Moreover, children with disability are seen as a burden to the family because of the money, time and effort needed to take care of them and therefore, men resort to blaming their wives for putting them in such situations. Having someone to blame is comforting, it allows society to believe that by avoiding that person’s mistakes, everyone else will be spared their fate.
In order to make sense of these assumptions, we must give them a critical look. In her article ‘Why blame the mom?’ posted on 24th April 2015, Nina Zylstra the Editor of ‘Special Kids’ states that historically it has been mothers who have taken the blame for anything going wrong with a pregnancy – miscarriage, preterm birth, still birth, baby with disabilities, baby with genetic disorders, a low birth weight baby and on and on and on. In earlier times it was believed that it was the mother’s sins which caused the disability. Women were blamed for not following doctor’s orders or folk wisdom – carrying anything heavier than a frying pan would cause a miscarriage.
Today’s belief is that women can prevent birth defects by what she does or doesn’t do during pregnancy. Strong public health messages suggest that by taking good care of yourself during your pregnancy, you will prevent most defects – an unfortunate message to give to the healthy women who just gave birth to a child with a disability.
These assumptions are largely based on ignorance on what truly causes disability. Louise Kinross (editor of Bloom Magazine) says it perfectly, “… in 70% of birth defects the cause is unknown. Let’s speak the truth about how much we don’t know about the causes of childhood disability and, more importantly, how to prevent it. Let’s tell the truth about how a healthy mom can just as easily produce an unhealthy baby, or a healthy baby with a disability. Disability is not necessarily synonymous with poor health.”
We really do have less control over this than we think. Disabilities are often random, due to genetics, and cannot be prevented no matter how healthy you were during your pregnancy. Let’s protect women whose children have been born with disabilities from being blamed, and from blaming themselves. Every mother wants the best for her child, and in most cases it’s not something that they did.
There is no quick fix to this problem, partly because our African societies are highly patriarchal and are modeled on the idea that a man’s views are supposed to be taken seriously. Women are supposed to be perfect when it comes to fulfilling their parental roles and there is no room for error even where they don’t receive the much needed support from their husbands or relatives. Rather than being given the help they need, are typically blamed for the disability — and often divorced by their husbands or literally chased out of their homes. Moreover, societal pressure is just too much to bear. Much as that may be the case, these mothers of children with disabilities deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.