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"They Call Me A Witch" - Where Mothers Are Blamed For Their Child's Disability

Mother and child
Mother and child
Cosmas Mungazi

GOMA - In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, mothers of disabled children, rather than being given the help they need, are typically blamed for the disability -- and often literally chased out of their homes.

Lingering local superstitions say that a mother is somehow responsible for her child's health problems -- and the consequences can be cruel. "They accuse me of being a witch and say it is my fault that my baby has a crippled leg," says Dany, a young mother, with tears in her eyes.

Françoise Walimwengu, 30, has been rejected by her family and forced to live alone with her disabled child. She had to leave behind her three other, healthy children, whom her husband wanted to keep.

"None of my ancestors were disabled. So why did my wife give birth to a child with a paralyzed arm and leg?" a man asks, after requesting anonymity. He explains that he made his wife and child leave his house, telling her, "I'm giving you this gift of love. That child belongs to you. No one will ever ask you for it. But you can forget that we are married."

Maggy, another woman, gave birth to a mentally handicapped child. Forced out of her home, she left her child at the doorstep of her ex-husband's sister's house. "Her husband had already abandoned her, and afterwards she abandoned the child. We became his parents," says Lydie Nechi Mungongo, who takes care of David, now six years old.

Such unhappy stories are legion -- and now a new organization is working to help these mothers and children escape from their social and economic isolation. "These mothers are alone and often illiterate. They make their living from menial jobs that bring in very little income," explains Étienne Paluku, president of the Association of Parents of Children With Brain Damage (APEC), which helps the most vulnerable women, especially with medical care.

Dr. Henry Tchongo Kataliko has treated many of these families. "It is regrettable to note that, almost always, and without any medical examination, the mother is blamed for her child's handicap."

One burden too many

Children born with a disability are above all a burden for families, because of all the money and time needed to care for them. "My child is eight years old, but does not study because nobody can take him to school. He needs help to eat, wash and go to the toilet," says Françoise Walimwengu.

"For the past five years I have not done anything. All I do is take care of my older brother's child, whose parents abandoned him," confirms Lydia, David's adoptive mother. Basic care is free for parents who are members of the association, says Dr. Henry Tchongo, a specialist in rehabilitation and physical therapy at the Center for the Disabled, who is in charge of their care.

APEC allows these parents’ voices to be heard. "For example, we had a demonstration in May, on the International Day of the African Child, to proclaim that handicapped children and their mothers have the same right to protection as everyone else," declares Clarice, a mother and influential member of APEC. She, too, was rejected by her family and her husband after giving birth to a disabled child.

APEC also supports women who want to go take their husbands to court for forcing them out of their homes. "Thanks to us, Jacqueline Kavira, a mother, won her lawsuit against her ex-husband," an APEC member recounts, proudly. The Goma justice of the peace required the family to give her back all her rights. However, the only payment ordered was for damages, and to date she has received nothing.

Lessening prejudice

"Our goal is to eliminate discrimination and marginalization. We are often victims," summarizes Françoise Walimwengu.

"My father divorced my mother because I was born handicapped," says Béatrice, age 20. She learned to read and write through APEC, which helps some children who have no support at all to learn these skills. Béatrice believes that the best way to fight discrimination is for the courts to punish the guilty severely.

Unfortunately, Françoise adds, "my child's father did indeed promise in front of the judge that he would pay for all the child's needs, but he never kept his promise." To complicate the situation, "the government does not have any funds set aside for people with disabilities," says an official at the provincial division for social affairs. Yet these situations are not rare. In the past three years, APEC has registered more than 500 parents of handicapped children. Parents especially regret that Handicap International, for its part, is concerned only with handicaps caused by war.

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Longyearbyen Postcard: World's Northernmost Town Facing Climate Change — And Russia

The melting of the sea ice in the Far North has accelerated in recent years. The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard has become the focal point of the environmental drama gripping the Arctic as well as the geopolitical tensions it is causing there, with Russia in particular.

A statue of a coal miner stands in the center of the photos with houses surronding it, draped around their shoudler is a Ukrainian flag. The environment is snowy and the sky is white from clouds.

A Ukraine flag placed on a statue of a coal miner in the center of Longyearbyen

Steffen Trumpf/dpa/ZUMA
Laura Berny

LONGYEARBYEN — The Longyearbreen glacier, which once unfurled to the sea, is now a shadow of its former self. Only the name of Longyearbyen’s Isfjorden now conveys the idea of something frozen.

“Last January, during the polar winter, the temperature was between 0 and 5 °C. When I went for a walk by the fjord, I could hear the waves. This was not the case before at this time of year,” says Heidi Sevestre. The French glaciologist fell in love with Svalbard as a student, so much so that she now lives here for part of the year.

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Compared to Siberia, Canada’s and Greenland’s High North – the Arctic archipelago, located just over a thousand kilometers from the North Pole – has historically benefited from a slightly more benign climate despite its extreme latitude. Temperatures here range between 5 °C and 15 °C in summer and usually not below -30 °C in the coldest of winter. This relatively “mild" weather has its origin in the Gulf Stream — the marine current which rises up from the Caribbean and runs along the west coast of Svalbard.

But the situation has now changed.

“There has been a lot of talk about the rise in atmospheric temperature for at least 20 years. But in the past three years, ocean temperatures have also risen significantly. This is what is causing the increasingly rapid retreat of the ice pack,” explains Jean-Charles Gallet, a glaciologist who has worked at the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) since 2010.

“The sea ice acts like an air conditioner for the ocean, so the more it decreases, the more the ocean warms up. This causes a chain reaction which ends up accelerating the warming process,” adds Eero Rinne, a Finnish specialist on the topic and a researcher at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS). Rinne is working on the CRISTAL sea ice satellite mission, slated to go live in 2028 as part of the European Space Agency’s Copernicus program.

Beyond the alarming disappearance of glaciers and ice packs and the threat to polar bears (of which there are still around 300 in the archipelago), global warming is also causing cracks in the infrastructure of the territory, which is covered by permafrost. Landslides are increasingly frequent, and all recently constructed buildings in the region are on stilts.

“It used to rain very little in Svalbard, but now it is getting wetter and wetter, which is weakening the soil,” explains Hanne Hvidtfeldt Christiansen, a Danish-Norwegian scientist and specialist on permafrost at UNIS.

Norwegians kept a low profile about Svalbard's growing crisis, until 2017. That was the year when the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was flooded, less than 10 years after its foundation. The facility, dug near a mine in Longyearbyen, the capital of the archipelago, was built to preserve more than a million seeds from a possible cataclysm. The disaster didn’t affect the seeds but left a scar in people’s minds. Even this close to the pole, permafrost is thawing.

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