Eric Ngabo from Empowering Children with Disabilities (EmCD), our partner in Rwanda who run the Nyabihu Deaf School, talks about the risks to the children he works with in Rwanda which are being made worse by COVID-19 forcing the school to close.
Out of school, children are at risk of abuse and neglect
The school is a safe place for students, and the staff that work here are dedicated to keeping children safe. The challenges arise when children are out of school, during school holidays. There are many potential threats that our children face when they’re at home and back in their communities.
We fear that they might be subject to physical, sexual, psychological abuse as well as neglect. We aren’t there to monitor what’s going on and children are spread out far away.
The culture in our country has changed massively. In the past, people tended to accept and tolerate some sorts of abuse. Hitting your child to discipline them used to be something normal and not a problem. Obviously we now know that this is abuse, but we fear that some parents might still hold those past views and will end up harming their children.
We also know that people and children with disabilities, like deafness, are more likely to experience psychological abuse. In the past, people with disabilities were segregated in their communities. Many of the children we work with have faced isolation. Because of a lack of understanding, they’re called names such as “dumb” and this sort of psychological abuse can have long-term, negative effects.
The deaf school is a safe place for children who often face stigma in their home communities
We’re also worried about children facing sexual abuse. In Rwanda, we had 17,000 cases of teenage pregnancies in the last year. This is a very alarming number and reflects what is happening in our communities and when children aren’t at school, we’re very worried about what might happen to children and girls.
With COVID-19 forcing the school to close, children have been away for a long time now and we’re worried that children will come back and share that they have had difficult experiences at home. Our team has been working hard to reach as many families as possible to keep them safe and healthy by distributing food and facemasks. In fact, many of the families we’ve spoken to didn’t understand the reason the school has closed. So we’ve been making sure they’re aware of the virus and the government restrictions.
Similarly, we’ve been able to continue some school activity by distributing learning materials to keep them engaged with their education. However, it has been a difficult time and we haven’t been able to reach every child at the school with this support yet. And the longer this goes on, the more worried we are. Usually children are away for just one or two months at a time. But now they’ve been away for five months, and may be away for eight or nine months before coming back.
How we make sure survivors of abuse get the support they need
If an incident is reported, we will go and visit the child or young person as soon as possible – to see for ourselves what has happened. Say, for example, we hear a report of a child being beaten by a family member. We will go to the child’s home and assess what action needs to be taken. We will make sure the local authorities are informed and work with them to resolve it.
If a child needs medical attention or psychological therapy, then we’ll make sure they get this at a local hospital. All the children enrolled at the school have access to Rwanda’s Universal Medical Scheme. However, the scheme doesn’t cover all the costs and we still have to find the funds to arrange transport and 1:1 care.
Will you stand up for survivors this September? We’re crowdfunding to raise £5,000 for our Survivors Support Fund. The fund is there to help our partners, like Empowering Children with Disabilities, to support survivors of abuse.
Adviser to the Executive Director
Empowering Children with Disabilities