Despite treaties, charity and political advocacy, people with disabilities in Africa still struggle to meet their basic needs and their basic rights. Social injustice and official neglect are often the greatest disabilities they face.
Masimba Kuchera was born blind in Zimbabwe. 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 personal life, he remains saddened by the fact that many others in his situation will not be able to live full and productive lives, 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.
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.
Many 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.
“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.”
Part of the problem stems from social attitudes, experts say. The general feeling is that the only places for a disabled person are in the street or in front of either a church or mosque, begging. The situation is worse in rural areas, where children with disabilities are usually confined to the house because of long-held 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 in Zimbabwe.
It is vital work, because women with disabilities face especially severe discrimination. A 2004 report by Save the Children Norway found that nearly 9 of every 10 girls with disabilities had been sexually abused. Approximately half of these girls were mentally challenged. Of those who had been abused, 52.4 per cent tested positive for HIV.
In a number of countries in Southern Africa there are non-governmental organizations that agitate for the welfare of disabled people, with some focusing on those with specific needs, such as the blind, deaf, paralyzed or mentally ill. Most groups also challenge governments to implement policies for the rights of the disabled.
One such organization is Disabled People’s International. Joshua Malinga, who is wheelchair-bound, is a founding member. 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.”
The African Union is trying to change that. 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 those concerns in their national programmes.
Improvements in some countries
Nationally there have also been some improvements as well. 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.
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.
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.
But political will is still sorely needed in most other African countries. “Being disabled is a permanent state which needs permanent solutions,” Mr. Malinga argues. Those solutions, he concluded, “can only come from our governments.”