Washing away stigma: photo of school girl washing hands

Washing away the stigma

Thomas Nkhonjera, field officer with our partners CCAP in Malawi, reports on some unexpected results of our deaf awareness project…

Glue ear

Otitis media, or glue ear, is a common infection among children and in the UK is easily treated with antibiotics. For many children in Malawi, however, this is not an option, because of the costs and limited availability of healthcare and lack of community knowledge about the infection.

Washing away the stigma: photo of outdoor class

If left untreated, otitis media can lead to hearing loss or deafness in the long-term. In the short-term, the infection frequently re-occurs, which is very painful for the child. Moreover, because of the smell of the discharge of the untreated infection, it can lead to bullying and discrimination.

As part of our project in Northern Malawi, family members are taught how to care for and safely clean their children’s ears, lessening both the infection and hearing loss. This care has been shown to reduce stigma and bullying at school, as the children become accepted, make friends and enjoy school, which in turn leads to increased attendance and academic attainment.

Unexpected results

But more positive and unexpected results are also being reported with wider implications….

One of the schools reached by our project is Ching’oma Primary School. Founded in 1933 and currently schooling 534 pupils, the school had not had opportunities for the staff to learn about children with special educational needs until our project team first visited in 2013.

Eight people closely involved in running the school, including the school management committee, members of mothers’ groups and respected community leaders, were invited to attend training, where they learned about the rights of all children to an education and how to identify and care for children with hearing loss. They then worked with their local communities to start a campaign to bring back to school every school-age child who was at home: those who had never attended and those who had dropped out. By early 2014, 54 such children had been identified and are now enrolled and studying at Ching’oma School.

Holistic approach

Many of these re-engaged learners with hearing loss had recurrent otitis media, and with their new knowledge and skills about the need to keep children’s ears clean, the school management took the initiative and adopted a new holistic approach. They looked at the wider welfare around hygiene and sanitation for all children at Ching’oma. They prioritised the need for good hand washing facilities to allow for hygienic cleaning of ears and to prevent the spread of infection. Independently, they successfully lobbied their local education managers for the provision of buckets and soap under a School Improvement Grant.

Washing away the stigma: photo of children in class

With the hand washing facilities and soap outside the pit latrines, the health of every pupil has improved, not just those with hearing impairments. Sickness levels have dropped and, as school attendance has increased, so has academic achievement, with one teacher reporting that “frequent absenteeism among pupils is the story of the past.” 

Inflation in Malawi is currently running at over 20%, which has an impact on our budgets, and we continue to fundraise to ensure that this project can reach as many deaf children as possible, as well as those who are benefitting unexpectedly. If you would like to donate, please click here.

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