Children of mentally ill mothers in West Africa
Sexual abuse of mentally ill girls is on the rise in Africa, resulting in an increasing number of vulnerable children on the continent. Many children in West and Central Africa are increasingly joining alternative care families because their biological parents were unable to care for them as a result of mental illness.
On a street corner in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, a filthy, mentally ill girl is spotted sleeping on the tarmac with her baby. Her little naked girl, about one year old, looks frail and dirty, and both seem to find much ‘comfort’ under the scorching sun.
She wakes up, screams and chases away a social worker who attempts to take the baby away.
“We have been tracing her for about two days now and it is not easy to take that baby away from her” said the social worker, Sarah.
She is just one of many girls with mental disorder, roaming the streets of Africa with children born of unknown fathers.
Paul*, now eleven years old is thankful to God for giving him a loving home and family in alternative care.
Paul was born of a mentally ill mother in Ouagadougou and he spent the first five years of his childhood on the streets with her. He joined a family in alternative care at the age of five with a chronic illness.
“He had a strange behaviour when he came. He was scared of the TV, isolated himself from the other children in the house and was looking very pale and sickly. He was seriously malnourished and had typhoid” explained his mother in alternative care, Blandine Koulibaly.
Now, Paul does well in school and is closely followed by a psychologist. His biological mother died three years ago. But before she died, she got pregnant again and had another child, a girl, who now shares a family with Paul.
In another situation, little Larisa* was about two years old in May 2012, when she was offered the opportunity to grow in alternative care in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.
Larisa is the daughter of a student who developed a mental illness and took to the streets. Larisa’s mother became mentally ill when she was in her first year in high school.
She became pregnant by an unidentified man on the street and had Larisa.
The child spent the early stage of her childhood on the streets with her mother. It was a difficult life for her as she grew without a home and learned how to feed in a garbage bin.
“When she came, her behaviour was a bit strange. She picked and ate anything she saw on the ground because she had lived with her mother for long” said her alternative care mother, Beatrice Gnanla.
Larissa still has some memories of her mum’s aggressive actions; but does not know that she is her mother.
“She broke the television of my grandmother,” recalls little Larisa
In Yamoussoukro, five-years-old Rita* and three-year-old Arnold*, are children born of a mentally ill woman. Unidentified men took advantage of their biological mother’s insanity and have repeatedly abused her sexually, and now she has six children.
Rita and Arnold, the youngest of the six, had a lifetime of hardship with their mother roaming the streets under the rain and sun.
“They ate like their mother in the trash cans and slept in open air or in makeshift shelters” narrated a social worker, Gnougon Affoue in Béoumi, a town in Cote d’Ivoire where they come from.
When they joined their family in alternative care, Rita was suffering from severe malnutrition but after having proper care she has regained herself and is looking very healthy now.
The stories are similar and cut across West and Central Africa.
Stressor affecting children
Mental health is a state of emotional and psychological well-being in which an individual is able to use his or her cognitive and emotional capabilities, function in society and meet the ordinary demands of everyday life.
According to experts, a person becomes mentally ill when he or she presents with a dysregulation of mood, thought and/or behaviour.
“A mother who is mentally ill would be unable to bond and show love and affection to her child,” explained Dr Mbong Eta Ngole, public health specialist (MD) and Programme Development Advisor for West and Central Africa, with a child welfare organization, SOS Children’s Villages International, in Dakar, Senegal.
Dr Eta adds that a child whose mother is mentally ill is exposed to danger including neglect and stigma.
“In the long run, it will lead to loss of parental care” he stated.
The increasing prevalence of mental illness among women represents a stressor affecting the bio-psychosocial development of a child.
“For normal bio (physical) and psychological development, a child needs healthy parents, especially the mother who is most involved in caring for children in the early years of life” stated Dr Eta.
Not much is done
Unless there is a scandal or lawsuit, the plight of these vulnerable children never makes headlines and has not appeared to be an issue that governments are concerned enough to act upon.
Although a psychiatric hospital has been opened in Bingerville to care for mentally ill persons and help them get off the streets in Cote d’Ivoire, much is still required to help these children out of their misery.
In Niger, the emerging issue of pregnant or lactating mentally ill mothers is gradually gaining attention in the country.
“It is a big concern for the government of Niger, [they talk about it] but no big actions are taken to address the situation” said Ousmane Nayaya, a social worker with a local NGO in Niamey.
Worsening for girls
Girls in impoverished Niger are particularly vulnerable. The country has the highest rate of child marriage in the world, according to UNICEF.
In Niger, one in three girls is married before the age of 15, and 75 percent of girls are married before 18.
Experts say most of the girls are overwhelmed by motherhood, leading to depression.
“And this can eventually lead to mental illness” stated a Dakar based sociologist, Ibrahim Ndiaye who owns a private consultancy firm.
Some observers have said the situation requires more attention from non-governmental organisations working with children in Africa as a great number of these children remain on the streets.
*Names of children changed for privacy reasons
By Jude Fuhnwi on assignment in Burkina Faso/Cote d’Ivoire