Africa’s disabled will not be forgotten

People with disabilities fight for services, rights, dignity
From Africa Renewal: 
page 18
The United Nations, as part of a “peace day” celebration in Liberia, organized a soccer match among amputeesThe United Nations, as part of a “peace day” celebration in Liberia, organized a soccer match among amputees: All people with disabilities have a right to participate actively in society.
Photograph: UN / Christopher Herwig

Masimba Kuchera was born blind. He struggled through primary and secondary school and university to become an information specialist, and now works for the Students’ Solidarity Trust, a non-governmental organization striving to protect students’ rights.

Although he feels a sense of achievement in his own personal life, he remains saddened by the fact that many others in his situation will not be able to realize their dreams, or even go to school. “There are very few government schools that cater for children with disabilities. I wonder how many disabled people are in school right now,” Mr. Kuchera asks.

Most schools that admit people with disabilities are funded by churches, Mr. Kuchera told Africa Renewal, while many disabled children in Zimbabwe simply do not go to school. “There is not much investment in this area. This constituency has not been taken seriously,” he says.

Most of the obstacles facing people with disabilities involve public amenities, education and information. “Access to public transport, buildings and public gatherings is very difficult,” says Mr. Kuchera. “The infrastructure is not user-friendly. I cannot operate an elevator on my own and there are no Braille guides. It’s even worse for those using wheelchairs, because ramps do not exist in this part of the world.”

Mr. Kuchera is a member of the National Disabled Council, an organization working for the rights of the disabled. He also belongs to the Southern African People’s Solidarity Network, a coalition of civil society groups fighting for social and economic rights in Southern Africa. He decided to join these groups because they give him an opportunity to fight for the rights of people with disabilities in Zimbabwe and the region.

There are an estimated 1.4 million people living with disabilities in Zimbabwe, according to Progressio, an international charity working to eradicate poverty. The United Nations estimates that the total number of people with disabilities in Africa is approximately 80 million.

‘Useless liabilities’?

In the streets of Harare hundreds of disabled people beg for alms. Most do so in dirty clothes, in makeshift wheelchairs or on crutches, while the less fortunate drag themselves on their hands and knees.

Most were previously cared for in special homes, including the Jairos Jiri Centre, Copota School, Danhiko and the Chinyaradzo Children’s Home. Such institutions used to get financial support from the government and the corporate world, but the economic decline that began in Zimbabwe in 2000 made life in the homes difficult and forced most residents to opt for life on the streets.

Beggar in wheelchair approaching a car.With very little assistance available, many disabled people have few options but to beg on the streets.
Photograph: Panos / Robin Hammond

“The government has forgotten the disabled people,” laments Mr. Kuchera. “Nothing was mentioned in the country’s 2010 budget. There are no projects or programmes whatsoever for disabled people.”

Those with disabilities also seem to confront an uncaring society. When they approach members of the public for help in starting market gardening, dressmaking or music projects, they are regarded as a nuisance. The general feeling is that the only places for a disabled person are in the street or in front of a church, begging. The situation is worse in rural areas, where children with disabilities are usually confined to the house because of long-held traditional beliefs that they are curses from God.

“Society views disabled people as useless liabilities that have no role to play in society,” says Gladys Charowa, a single mother who was left wheelchair-bound by a 2001 car accident. She is a founding member and executive director of the Disabled Women Support Organization, a group that focuses on helping women and girls with disabilities.

Discrimination and abuse

Because of the prevalent social attitudes towards people with disabilities, Ms. Charowa says, they often face discrimination. In Zimbabwe, women with disabilities experience especially severe discrimination.

A 2004 report by Save the Children Norway found that sexual abuse of children with disabilities is increasing in Zimbabwe, and that 87.4 per cent of girls with disabilities had been sexually abused. Approximately 48 per cent of these girls were mentally challenged, 15.7 per cent had hearing impairments and 25.3 per cent had visible physical disabilities. Of those who had been sexually abused, 52.4 per cent tested positive for HIV.

To make matters worse, access to counseling, testing and treatment is severely limited. Health personnel often display biased attitudes towards people with disabilities, while there is no information on HIV/AIDS in Braille and staff are unable to use sign language.

Fighting for enforcement

Although the Zimbabwean government is among many in Africa that have not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (see box), it has enacted some legislation to protect their rights. The Disabilities Act is intended to benefit those living with disabilities, while the constitution prohibits discrimination. But such laws exist largely on paper, and generally are not enforced.

A number of groups lobby the government to recognize the rights of the disabled and fight for the existing laws to be enforced. One such organization is Disabled People’s International.

Joshua Malinga, who is wheelchair-bound, is a founding member. He has been a disability activist since 1980, travelling widely in that capacity and holding leadership positions in Zimbabwe, regionally and internationally. He has participated in and promoted research on the status of disabled people, and holds a master’s degree in disability studies from the University of Cape Town, in neighbouring South Africa. He also belongs to the Political Bureau of Zimbabwe’s ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front, led by President Robert Mugabe.

While Mr. Malinga himself wields some political influence, most people with disabilities do not. “The quality of life of disabled people in Africa is pathetic because disability has not been mainstreamed,” Mr. Malinga told Africa Renewal. “Disabled people are not represented in parliaments, in organs of decision-making, even on issues that concern them. Governments do not plan with the disabled in mind.”

Asked why he has failed to convince his party — which has been at the forefront of Zimbabwean politics for the past 30 years — to lift up the lives of the disabled, he said that he is trying, “both in parliament and in my party. That’s why I have mixed my international advocacy work with politics. The tragedy is that as disabled people, we are very few in numbers and often find ourselves on the peripheries of political agendas.”

In several Southern African countries there has been some progress, Mr. Malinga pointed out. In Namibia, all government ministries have been instructed to integrate disability issues into their work, while in South Africa the Ministry of Women, Children and People with Disabilities takes up their concerns.

In Zimbabwe, the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare is responsible for the needs of the disabled. “We have a big responsibility as a government,” says Paurina Mpariwa, the minister. She adds, however, that “at the moment we have serious financial problems that limit us from adequately addressing the needs of the disabled people. But we are aware of their situation.”

Mr. Malinga insists, “We want disabled issues to be discussed as part of the budgeting process. We want the issues to be made a national agenda.” He welcomed the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and other external initiatives, including UN-funded projects that have provided furniture and learning equipment to schools and centres attended by disabled people.

“But being disabled is a permanent state which needs permanent solutions,” Mr. Malinga argues. And those solutions “can only come from our governments.”

Regional and continental initiatives

In a number of countries in Southern Africa there are non-governmental organizations that agitate for the welfare of disabled people, some focusing on those with specific needs, such as the blind, deaf, paralyzed or mentally ill. Most groups challenge governments to implement policies for the rights of the disabled.

One such group in Zimbabwe is the National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped (NASCOH). “We want disability to be mainstreamed in every government department, function and parliament,” argues Farai Mukuta, NASCOH’s director.

The African Union (AU) agrees. The continental body has developed a Plan of Action for Disabled People. Among other things, the plan recognizes the need to integrate people with disabilities into society, and to empower and involve them in the formulation and implementation of social and economic development policies. It urges governments to allocate sufficient funds to ministries and departments dealing with people with disabilities and to establish national committees to coordinate all disability issues and include people with disabilities in their national programmes.

The plan proclaimed 1999–2009 the African Decade of Disabled Persons. But activists want this period to be extended, to match the timeline of the international community’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the world’s blueprint for reducing poverty and making other improvements in people’s well being by 2015.

Some bright spots

Across Africa many governments cite financial constraints as an impediment to promoting the rights of the disabled. But there have been some successes and improvements, including in Burkina Faso, Senegal and Togo.

Ghana is a shining example. It is estimated that about 1.8 million Ghanaians — about 5 per cent of the total population — are in some fashion disabled, with problems of sight, hearing and speaking in the lead.

In 2006 Ghana’s parliament passed the National Disability Act, intended to ensure that people living with disabilities enjoy the same rights as the able-bodied. The act offers a legal framework to protect the rights of physically and mentally disabled persons in all areas of life, from education, training and employment to physical access and health care. It also is intended to promote the creation of an environment that will advance the economic well-being of disabled people and enable them to function better.

After taking office in January 2009, President John Atta Mills initiated a series of face-to-face meetings with persons with disabilities. The discussions led to the establishment of the National Council of Persons with Disabilities.

The authorities also are seeking to disseminate the Disability Act of 2006 more widely, including in electronic form. In June 2009, for example, Minister of Education Alex Tettey-Enyo launched the act’s electronic version in Akropong in the Eastern Region. With funding from the Danish International Development Agency, the act was produced in English and local languages such as Ga, Ewe and Twi.

Most recently, the government has decided to incorporate disability issues into the country’s national budget. Minister of Finance and Economic Planning Kwabena Duffour announced in parliament on 19 November 2009 that his government will give all children with disabilities free education. The government had previously established special schools for the disabled in all regions of the country.

“The political will has always existed in Ghana,” commented Aida Sarr, a communications and programmes officer at the Secretariat of the Africa Decade of Persons with Disabilities, headquartered in neighbouring Togo.

But political will is sorely needed in most other African countries, despite the existence of an international convention, the proclamation of an annual International Day of Persons with Disabilities (on 3 December) and other programmes. People with disabilities still face discrimination and receive little support across much of Africa.         

UN defends rights of people with disabilities

Over 650 million people are estimated to be living with disabilities globally, of whom more than 500 million are in developing countries. To help protect their rights, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in December 2006. The convention and an additional optional protocol are intended to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities.

Article 3 of the convention establishes general principles for its implementation. Among them are respect for everyone’s inherent dignity and the freedom to make their own choices, full participation in society, acceptance of people with disabilities as part of human diversity, access to transportation and information, and equal opportunity. It also cites the rights of people with disabilities, including:

  • equality before the law
  • life, liberty and security of the person
  • freedom from torture, exploitation, violence and abuse
  • freedom of movement and nationality
  • respect for privacy
  • access to education and health care
  • work and an adequate standard of living, and
  • participation in cultural, political and public life.

The convention does not explicitly define “disability.” However, the preamble states that “disability is an evolving concept” that “results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers” that hinder their full, effective and equal participation in society.

Compliance with the convention is monitored internationally by a Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The committee reviews reports submitted by signatory governments and also has the authority to examine individual complaints and conduct inquiries in countries that have ratified the optional protocol.

Another legal instrument under the convention is the Conference of State Parties, which meets periodically to discuss the convention’s implementation. The convention and its optional protocol are supported by a joint secretariat, consisting of staff from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs in New York and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.

—Marian Aggrey