The children of Kachitsa Village, a small village of 1,000 in the northern outskirts of Lilongwe, Malawi, are adamant about their religious beliefs. Mention God and their shy, soft-spoken demeanor converts to self-assurance and poise.
These children are members of a church called Zion Bata which preaches that prayer is the only effective method for healing the sick.
“Since I was born I have never had any drugs,” says 10-year-old Rezina Emphraim “It would therefore be wrong if I had any vaccination because we made a promise to God that we will never take medicine.”
All members of the Zion Bata church, including 600 children, are forbidden access to modern medical care. Those who do seek treatment for sickness are heavily judged and ultimately kicked out of the community.
For the children of Kachitsa, their parents’ decision to join Zion Bata has influenced every aspect of their lives.
“When a child is born, we give him blessed water first before he takes anything of this world,” says Mrs. Chigona, the community midwife who would only give her last name “He is blessed first and then he can be breastfed.”
Some members of Zion Bata have never spoken to the media before, largely because their beliefs are highly controversial in Malawi.
In 2011, when the Malawian government made the measles vaccination mandatory, health officials visited the village and found not a child in sight. It was later discovered that they ran away to a nearby mountain to avoid any wrongdoing.
“If I took drugs, it would be a sin against God,” says 13-year-old Enelesi Haswel, “It is not right that I should receive any medicine.”
To an outsider, it seems like the strong commitment to the church is governed by a fear of relinquishment. But the leader of church, Inspector Jamieson Ofesi, says that members have free choice to take medicine.
“If a person has little faith, he can use drugs. We do not prevent them from taking drugs. But if they do [take drugs] we excommunicate them because we know that they do not have faith.”
According the World Health Organization, 110 out of every 1,000 children born in Malawi will die before the age of five. And for every eight that die, one will be the result of a preventable disease such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia, or measles. Which prompts the question: Can the children of Katchitsa risk never seeing a doctor?
The physical appearance of the kids in this village is a testimony to the effects of prohibited healthcare.
The majority of them have scars, wounds or ring worms, and sitting in on the Sunday service is like sitting in a hospital waiting room. Young infants have worrying chesty coughs comparable to adults with bronchitis.
Malawian authorities have done little for the children of Zion Bata because the grey area between freedom of religion and the rights of the child is not yet defined.
Malawi practices religious tolerance, but children’s rights are a fairly recent phenomenon. The country only passed its first comprehensive act on child protection in 2010. Known as the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act, Article 80 states that “no person shall subject a child to a social or customary practice that is harmful to the health and general development of the child”. Those found in breach of the article will land 10 years in prison.
Nonetheless, no arrests under this act have been made at Zion Bata.
Grace Malera is the executive secretary of the Malawian Human Rights Commission, and she admits to facing difficulties in taking a proactive stance toward investigating whether the children are severely suffering due to their parents’ personal choices.
“A matter like this one needs further and comprehensive research because that kind of research will enable to us to generate evidence which could then in turn inform relevant policy and program interventions.” Says Malera
For child’s rights activists like George Kayange, who is the founder of the Child Rights Information and Documentation Centre, the central focus is the government’s role as a duty-bearer who has ratified the UN convention of the rights of the child.
“Government must take action in terms of ensuring that the best interests of the child – as enshrined in the convention – are being guaranteed,” Kayange says.
“It’s unfortunate that in many developing countries people use religion and culture as an excuse for violating other people’s rights, including children.”
With files from Teresa Ndanga