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SOS child in bath in Malawi
Nearly a third of Malawi's children do not attend primary school, and more than one in ten live with HIV/AIDS. We work in Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu to help families provide a safe, happy childhood for their children, and to provide care for those who cannot grow up with their parents. … more about our charity work in Malawi

Rehabilitating through play

The SOS Children’s Rehabilitation Centre is helping more than 4,000 children living with disabilities
The SOS Children’s Rehabilitation Centre is helping more than 4,000 children living with disabilities

SOS Children is offering a unique programme to children living with disabilities in Malawi. The SOS Children’s Rehabilitation Centre is helping more than 4,000 children living with disabilities learn how to play and develop critical skills.

The centre is providing physiotherapy, audio therapy and occupational therapy in the city of Lilongwe and Blantyre. Since 1997, it has helped children living with disabilities learn self-care, how to interact with other children, how to sit-up and walk, and much more.

Miriam Mwale, SOS physiotherapist and facility manager, has been at the Centre from the very beginning. She explains that she has seen babies who were unable to interact become reactive, playful children as a result of the rehabilitation programmes.

“Most children with disabilities in Malawi are from families that are not that well off and live far from medical assistance. When they do need medical assistance, they do not get it in time or do not have the experience to deal with the situation, injuries occur or disease leads to permanent damage,” she explains. 

The reality of living in sub-Saharan Africa

Many schools in sub-Saharan Africa do not take into account the needs of students with disabilities. According to the United Nations, the chances of a disabled child in Malawi never attending school are two times greater than for a child who is not disabled.

Every year in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 500,000 children contract cerebral malaria. If left untreated, the child is left with neurological complications that can affect their physical and intellectual functioning. Miriam explains that one in five children at the Centre has cerebral palsy, generally a result of untreated malaria.

“We find that because Malawi has a desperate need for medical personnel and medicine, children with malaria – when they do get help – are simply given aspirin for the fever. This results in cerebral malaria and leads to cerebral palsy. We also have instances of children living with HIV who have brain damage and those who had complications at birth,” says Miriam. 

The ultimate goal of self-care

Simon buttons up his shirt slowly and then unbuttons it again. He is ten-years-old and is learning to dress himself. Part of the sequence is how to bathe and check if his clothes are inside out, or not. “When Simon first came to the Centre as a toddler he could not hold up his head. Now, he can walk and we build puzzles together,” his mother says proudly.

Simon is just one of the children at the SOS Children’s Rehabilitation Centre. For him the goal is self-care. Each child at the centre is treated as an individual and the care is specifically tailored for the child’s needs. Some activities are done in groups but, for the most part, mothers are empowered to know what their child needs.

Child learning how to walk at the SOS Children's Rehabilitation Centre in Malawi
Anna, who suffers with brain damage, hangs on to a support bar beside her mother and an SOS staff member

Grouping children according to ability, not age

“The rule of thumb for us is that if a child cannot walk within five years of consistent rehabilitation the child is unlikely to ever walk,” says Miriam. Anna is such a child. However, Miriam explains that it is still beneficial for her to be in a stimulating environment and standing for at least 30 minutes three times a day.

The staff at the Centre group children for therapy sessions based on ability. Group one is for children who cannot hold up their heads. SOS trained staff facilitate neck exercises to strengthen core muscles and improve children’s ability to swallow food. In group two children work on their balance and ability to sit by themselves. And in group three, stability is the goal. Here, children learn how to stand and walk with walkers or walking frames.

An involved caregiver is crucial

Anna’s mother, Sarah, is committed to her treatment and an avid learner of any technique that will help at home. Other children are not so lucky. Many parents are resistant to the process, which requires a long-term commitment.

“We see parents that do not understand. They think that because they brought their child here, the child must be fixed immediately. Almost like a pill that will instantly cure,” says Miriam. For this reason, the centre provides a five-day training course for caregivers so that they can improve their skills in caring for a child with disability.

The centre offers in-patient treatment and group therapy on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays while providing care in the SOS Family Strengthening Programme on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Almost 100 children come on a regular basis to the in-patient therapy sessions.

SOS Children works to ensure all children can flourish. Learn more about how you can donate to SOS Children.