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Building a Better Future for Children with Visual Impairments in Malawi

Guest article written by Meagan Sheppard, Partnership Development Manager at Hope and Healing International

In November 2021, I visited Malawi to meet with some of Hope and Healing’s partner hospitals and clinics. As soon as I stepped off the plane, I understood why Malawi is known as the ‘warm heart of Africa.’ I was immediately welcomed by smiling, happy people, especially children.

But once I ventured out further, I began to notice the realities that the people of Malawi face. I thought I had seen poverty before since I had visited parts of the developing world and stayed in places with no electricity or running water. But as we left Lilongwe, I was struck by the lack of agriculture or infrastructure. Looking out the car window, I couldn’t see any buildings, crops or anything. There was nothing but dry, arid dirt for miles around.

I would see women walking and wonder where they were walking to. But the reality is that 83% of Malawi’s population lives in rural areas, which means that the majority of Malawians must walk long distances to access basic necessities such as water and healthcare.

Malawi remains one of the poorest countries in the world with 90% of its population living on less than $2 per day. And as we know, poverty and disability are inextricably linked. Eighty percent of Malawi’s population suffer from eye conditions that, if left untreated, lead to blindness.

Health clinics are few and far-between in Malawi and 83% of Malawians live in rural communities, so treatment is inaccessible to the majority of the population.

One of Hope and Healing International’s longstanding partners is Nkhoma Hospital, which has been around for over 100 years. They perform 50% of all eye surgeries in Malawi. Upon visiting the eye clinic at the hospital, I met many children struggling with vision impairment, like Julius, a 3-year old boy who had to undergo cataract surgery in both eyes.

The hardships faced by such young children broke my heart, but even more heartbreaking is the fact that those who make it to Nkhoma are among the lucky ones.

Sixty to eighty percent of children who are blind die within the first 2 years of becoming blind due to increased risk of injury or illness caused by malnutrition. Additionally, children with visual impairments often drop out of school because they can’t see and, therefore, forego their education.

Girls with visual impairments are especially at risk. They are much more likely to be targeted for sexual assault or exploitation because they are unable to identify their abusers and therefore have an increased risk of pregnancy and STIs.

Construction at Nkhoma Hospital

I have so many stories I could share from the people I met in Malawi, all of which have a common theme: that if healthcare was more accessible, many of these children would not be robbed of their futures.

Over the years, our partnership with Health Partners International of Canada (HPIC) has been instrumental in our efforts to improve the lives of these children. In the last 5 years alone, HPIC has provided over $20 million worth of medicines to Hope and Healing’s partner hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa.

By providing things like eye ointments and eye drops, HPIC has allowed us to continue supplying Nkhoma with essential medicines and supplies and, by extension, allowed children to access essential, life-changing medicines and treatments that would otherwise be unaffordable and out-of-reach for those who need them.

When we fund and supply local hospitals and clinics like Nkhoma, not only are we providing immediate treatment and relief, but we are also investing in children’s safety and in their futures.

In spite of all the hardships they face, the people – the children – of Malawi keep smiling, and it’s up to us to make sure that continues.

HPIC works with a number of organizations, like Hope and Healing International, to distribute medical aid to vulnerable people around the world. To-date, HPIC has sent more than $600 million worth of medicines and treatments to vulnerable communities to help close the gaps in access to healthcare.

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