“Isn’t it amazing that we are all made in God’s image (Imago Dei) yet there is so much diversity among [God’s] people?” ~Desmond Tutu
Imagine being a young girl with multiple disabilities including autism, cerebral palsy, and epilepsy. You are locked in a one-room hut made of mud. It’s hot. There are no windows, water, or food. There hasn’t been any all day. When your father comes home, he beats you to get the demons causing your seizures to leave you. You have never known care from another person. All you know of God is that He cursed you. You don’t cry because no one comes to help anyway. This is all you’ve known.
How you would feel is how she does. Her name is Hadija.
Girls with disabilities, like Hadija, and mothers of children with disability (who are often blamed for causing the child’s disability) are particularly vulnerable to emotional, verbal, and physical mistreatment. For example, 83% of women with developmental disabilities experience sexual violence compared to just 32% of males with similar conditions. Women with disabilities are also especially susceptible to human trafficking and sexual violence. Girls with disabilities are up to 10 times more likely to be abused, raped, and assaulted than girls who are not disabled, often by their own family or caregivers.
If I was born on the coast of Kenya, my situation might be the same or worse as Hadija’s. I’ve been told I might have been killed to protect my family from stigma and curse because I was born without my left hand.
This stigma is what drove me to visit the special school I passed every day while doing my wildlife graduate research on the Kenyan coast. It’s where I met the school’s founder, Leonard Mbonani, and 15 kids with disabilities who were unable to afford school fees or their parents were unwilling to support them. I couldn’t have imagined that funding these kids to attend school 20 years ago would grow into Kupenda (Love in Swahili), a nonprofit I co-founded with Leonard, that improved the lives of 40,000 children with disabilities last year. We are able to benefit this many children because we are replacing harmful practices and beliefs about disability with loving and effective support for these families. In addition to directly supporting health and education, we are conducting participatory, culturally-tailored training for community leaders, which is leading to changes in negative beliefs about disability and the provision of services that benefit thousands of kids like Hadija.
This has led to Hadija now living with her sisters and grandmother. Kupenda and our trained community leaders are also ensuring that she is receiving the services and medication she needs. She is no longer abused and hungry but well-fed and smiling. Most of all, she now knows what it means to be loved by other people, including herself.
Fortunately, our trainings and initiatives have effectively engaged families and community members in reducing these risks and improving conditions for Hadija and thousands of other girls like her. Because of our success, other organizations are requesting assistance to implement our community leader disability training model in their work around the world. We have already partnered with development organizations to help them improve the lives of people with disabilities in Tanzania, Zambia, Sierra Leone, Malawi, and Haiti.
This work benefits children like Hadija and can:
- train a pastor to provide counseling for a family impacted by disabilities instead of casting out their “demons”
- equip a traditional healer to replace “healing” rituals with medical care
- educate a government official on the rights of people with disabilities
- run a workshop that helps families impacted by disabilities to support one another
- provide medication
- fund education
- transform communities and save lives.
These results show us that we can make a difference for the millions of children with disabilities around the world still locked in dark rooms, like Hadija. However, I can’t help thinking of the countless children with disabilities around the world who will die before they ever know their true worth.
Someone recently asked me if I stand in awe of all Kupenda has done in the last two decades. I thought about it for a minute and said that, while I am grateful, I can’t help but feel that these achievements are modest in light of the statistics highlighted by The United Nations and World Health Organization revealing:
- 1 billion+ people are living with disabilities around the world
- 90% do not attend school
- 83% experience abuse
- 70% are orphans
- 50% lack access to healthcare
Although it is easy to be overwhelmed by these needs, there is hope. When I close my eyes, I can see the faces of the children who were once abused and neglected, now thriving in loving communities. They remind me that we can make a difference in their lives when we work with local communities and supporters around the world. We are excited to see how many more children will benefit in the years to come.
With much Love and Gratitude,
Cynthia has over 10 years of experience as a wildlife biologist with multiple nonprofit and government agencies, which provides her with an understanding of the biology related to many disabilities and the skills to manage this growing organization. She has also taught biology classes for over a decade, which gives her insight into education systems similar to those in which Kupenda works and helps her present difficult concepts to groups we work with in Kenya and the U.S. Cynthia has a Master’s degree in Biology and Ecology and a Bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Conservation.
As Kupenda’s US Executive Director and Founder, Cynthia oversees the organization’s administration, programs, and strategic planning. Her other key duties include fundraising, marketing, and community outreach.
Cynthia also advocates for justice and inclusion of children with disabilities through her public talks, guitar performances, piano playing, writing, and by facilitating trainings and workshops to help individuals and organizations around the world become more inclusive.