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08/04/2011

Children denied medical treatment in lieu of prayer

Religion photo
Some parents in Malawi, including Yesaya Mussa (above), refuse to seek medical attention when their children fall ill, believing instead that prayer will heal them.  Photo by Denis Calnan. 

By Rhodes Msonkho and Denis Calnan

Interpretations of the Bible are keeping some parents in Malawi from accessing medical treatment for their children, according to police spokespeople.

Yesaya Mussa’s is one such parent. His 2-year-old daughter was burned in an accident and kept from medical attention while he and others prayed for her to get better.

Mussa runs a small hardware shop in the Zomba market and says he has not done anything wrong.

“The Bible says that whoever believes in God can be healed through prayer,” Mussa explains in the local language, Chichewa. 

He is upset at the current government for infringing on his freedom to practise his beliefs. 

“We never go to hospitals – we are still sticking to what God is saying,” he says, “We are facing numerous challenges with the current government.”

Mussa recounts the day the police came to his house to take his daughter to the hospital and him, to prison. Mussa stayed behind bars for one night, before being released on bail. He was later given a 15-month suspended sentence in order to return to his daughter as her guardian. 

Nicholas Gondwa, the police spokesperson for Malawi’s Eastern Region, says the situation of parents refusing medical attention reached a critical point during a measles outbreak in 2010. Parents were urged to get their children vaccinated against measles, but some refused.

“It came as a surprise,” says Gondwa, “[because] we had so many cases.”

After getting the disease, Gondwa says several children were isolated in their homes as their parents prayed for their recovery. The police were tipped off by neighbours – but not before children died from the disease.

Tomeck Nyaude of the Zomba Police recalls a case where a father was arrested after denying his son medical attention when the boy fractured a bone in his leg playing soccer. The police were informed by one of the boy’s siblings seven days after the incident.  Sadly, the easily treatable fracture led to the leg being amputated.

“When you are enjoying your own rights and freedoms,” says Nyaude, speaking about the freedom to religion, “make sure that you do not involve and injure somebody [else’s] rights.”

Nyaude remembers the case of Mussa and his daughter, which was brought to his division’s attention by one of Mussa’s neighbours. When his police unit arrived in the community, they found the church elders praying for Mussa’s daughter. Nyaude says the father claimed in court that he realized he had done something wrong and was therefore released on a suspended sentence. 

Mussa gives a contradicting story, saying he was released because he was a first-time offender and continues to stand by his belief that if his child is sick or injured again, the only attention she should receive is that of prayer.

“We are doing this based on the faith we have and what the scripture is saying,” says Mussa. “I am encouraging those who are discouraged and might think of bowing down to this pressure, that we should not allow that. They should persevere during this trying time.”

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  • There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

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