By Tatenda Chitagu

The last time she talked to her guardians was when they left her at Copota School for the Blind, some five years back.

Her guardians, who are in Chivhu, have not bothered to visit or pay fees for her since then. This is the sad reality of a 12-year-old orphan, visually impaired albino inmate at the Reformed Church in Zimbabwe (RCZ)-run institution. Located about 20 kilometres north of Masvingo City. The school offers special needs education to pupils with multi-disabilities.

Her identity has been concealed for ethical reasons.

“I was born visually impaired and my parents are late. So I grew up in the custody of my aunt, who in the company of other relatives, left me here in 2014, saying she wanted to go and look for a job in South Africa. She promised to come back and bring me new clothes, but up to now, she has not come back. She has never phoned and is not paying fees for me. I do not know the cellphone number she is using there,” said the girl, who is now in Grade 6.

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She added: “I feel like an outcast and I wish my parents were still alive. Am sure they would not discriminate me and treat me this way. I, however, thank God that I found people here who are caring and treat me like a human being. These are my real relatives.”

She is among 300 children with disabilities (CwDs) housed at the institution, which offers primary and secondary education.

According to Copota school development committee (SDC) chair, Ernest Dube, who is visually impaired, most of the pupils, some with multi-disabilities have been literally dumped by their parents or relatives due to stigma and discrimination, which is pervasive in most Zimbabwean societies.

“Most of the kids at our primary school were dumped and forgotten. Their parents or guardians left them and never came back and are not paying fees for them. We have some kids who actually call this place their home and even during the school holidays, they remain stuck here,” said Dube, who was speaking on the sidelines of the official handover of braille pamphlets by the Legal Resources Foundation (LRF) last Thursday.

“It is all about attitudes by the parents or guardians. You find some parents have able-bodied children, and others with disabilities, but they do not pay for the disabled child. Such perceptions need to be changed so that they know that all children are equal, and that disability does not mean inability,” he said.

Dube said, while the school has income-generating projects, the pupils face clothing and food shortages and sometimes live on handouts from the RCZ as well as other well-wishers.

Another orphaned female pupil said her parents had not acquired a birth certificate for her, yet her other siblings, who are able-bodied, have the identity documents.

“I do not know how I can obtain a birth certificate. I think my parents were not willing to acquire one for me. They passed on when I was five. Surprisingly, my other sibling who is able-bodied has one,” she said.

Copota School deputy head, Tsitsi Muganhu, revealed that only three kids, out of 170 in primary school, are having their fees paid by their parents or guardians. The rest are on government’s Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM) support scheme, because they are either orphaned or their parents or guardians seem uninterested.

“The pupils are not paying fees for various reasons. At primary school, only three are paying, the rest are on BEAM, while others have their fees paid by Higher Life Foundation and well-wishers. As such, we face challenges in sourcing learning materials, which are imported. We need foreign currency to procure the learning materials like braille paper from outside the country, but we do not have the money,” Muganhu said.

She, however, thanked government for being up-to-date with its BEAM payments for the school.

“We also have water shortages here because of lack of power to pump water due to the incessant power outages. We only have one borehole, we need a solar plant to power our pumps. We owe power utility, Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority $40 000,” she added.

Muganhu further said they are in short supply of special lotions and hats for those with albinism. Some of the pupils at Copota are totally blind, partially blind, have albinism and down syndrome, while others have multi-disabilities and are wheelchair-bound.

According to Primary and Secondary Education ministry annual statistics report for 2018, there are 61 946 learners with impairments, of whom 5 347 (8,63%) are enrolled in ECD A and B; 43 504 (70,23%) are at primary school level and 13 095 (21,14%) at secondary school level.

This marks a sharp increase in the prevalence of in-school children with impairments from 34 734 in 2014 to 52 232 in 2016, according to the figures by the Primary and Secondary Education ministry.

Labour and Social Welfare ministry provincial head in Masvingo, Seanislaus Sanyangowe, when told of the situation at Copota by this reporter, said he was in the dark.

“We are not aware that there are school pupils whose parents or guardians dumped them at Copota, but we will look into that. I will deploy my district officers to go there and see the situation on the ground. We will definitely do something about it,” Sanyangowe said.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), children with disabilities are often excluded from opportunities to participate fully in their communities, and are more vulnerable to violence and abuse.

“Because of more than two decades of socio-economic challenges, many children living with disabilities in Zimbabwe are among the most marginalised and excluded groups of children. Compared to their peers, CwDs are often excluded from the mainstream health, education, legal support and other social services,” notes Unicef on its website.

LRF administrator, Wadzanai Wami, said they were touched by the general exclusion of people living with disabilities in various programmes, hence they with other partners donated legal braille pamphlets to educate them on inheritance, children’s rights, sexual offences, domestic violence, among others.

“CwDs are often left out in legal advocacy campaigns because the materials are not compatible with them since few are in braille. So we identified the challenge. We also realised that like the able-bodied, they also face challenges in accessing legal assistance, hence we educated them about our free legal assistance. We also gave them toll free numbers for those who need free legal services,” Wami said.

According to the 2013 national survey on living conditions among persons with disabilities in Zimbabwe, the prevalence of disability in the country is estimated to be 7%, which translates to approximately 914 287 persons based on the last 2012 population census, which recorded the total population to be at 13 million.

Unicef Zimbabwe says it has formulated a disability strategy (2018-2020), whose mandate is “to achieve equality, dignity and equal opportunities for children with disabilities in specific areas of programming to ensure the best interest of the child, independence, freedom of choice, full and active participation in all areas of life and society”. The Zimbabwe Disabled Persons Act Chapter 17:01 (Acts 5/1992,6/2000,22/2001) considers disability as a human rights and developmental issue.