African leaders commit to the rights of people with disabilities

The rights of people living with disabilities, especially intellectual disabilities in Africa, received a boost today at the conclusion of the first ever African Leaders Forum on Disability, as government, civil society and development actors committed to challenge stigma and inequity by seeking their inclusion in the continent’s development agenda.

The forum, hosted by Malawi President Joyce Banda and the Special Olympics, sought to build political momentum to improve the rights of disabled people, especially in areas of health, human rights, and education, by establishing an African Leadership Alliance on Intellectual Disabilities. It seeks to align efforts as part of the African Decade of Persons with Disabilities (2010 – 2019), with a goal of achieving full participation, equality and empowerment of people with disabilities in Africa.

“There is something about the plight that faces individuals with disabilities, including those with intellectual disabilities, that is compounded by an entrenched stigma that has endured, unjustly, for centuries and centuries. Before we can tackle the environment barriers that block our children from school, before we can address the lack of training of doctors that block our children from hospital, before we can strengthen the social policies that streamline family services, this stigma must become yesterday’s new,” said Banda. “We will be pouring valuable water into a bottomless bucket if we fail to address stigma in an aggressive, yet compassionate way. Political will is a critical element, and it is one that must have sustained commitment.

Zimbabwean Leader Comrade Robert Mugabe and President Joyce Banda arrives at BICC for the African Leaders Forum on Disability at BICC-pic by Lisa Vintulla.
Zimbabwean Leader Comrade Robert Mugabe and President Joyce Banda arrives at BICC for the African Leaders Forum on Disability at BICC-pic by Lisa Vintulla.

Banda is a champion for the rights of people with disabilities and in her first few weeks in office, passed a landmark Disability Act, enshrining into law equal rights and inclusion policies for people with disabilities in Malawi.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), adopted in 2006, which aims to “promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity”, has been ratified by 36 African countries. Many countries have passed their own disability legislation or put in place polices for inclusive education and strengthening human rights protection for people of all abilities.

“No region of the world is doing enough for people with intellectual disabilities. Africa, with its emphasis on community and its peoples’ deep understanding of discrimination and deprivation, can be a leader in ensuring human rights, social services and inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities.  President Banda conceived the African Leadership Alliance as a means for Africa to be at the forefront of the global movement for inclusion,” said Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver.

Global estimates indicate almost a billion people older than 15 years of age live with a disability, around 200 million with intellectual disability, while an estimated 93 million children under 14 are living with a disability. Data from Malawi suggest around 200,000 children under the age of 18 are living with a disability, and that is likely to be an underestimate.

“The inclusion of children with disabilities requires a change of perception:  Recognition of children with disabilities as having rights, an understanding that their active presence and voice will improve society as a whole. They need to be a part, rather than apart,” said Kanyankore Marcel Rudasingwa, UNICEF Representative to Kenya. “To do that we need to start at birth.  When a child is neither counted through birth registration nor diagnosed of their aliment, it is much more difficult to know where they are, support their survival and growth and guarantee they will access the types of services they need.

The growth and expansion of early childhood education and services in many countries has already presented a great opportunity to train the caregivers and teachers with these diagnostic and identification skills. Early diagnosis has proven to be a good way to treating some impairment, along with empowering parents with knowledge and preventing some complications later in life as well as often providing them with extra financial support to cope with the pressures and time to support a child with disability instead of placing them in an institution.

At the conclusion of the day long Forum, delegates agreed to the following recommendations:

  • To work towards better data collection including the urgent need to include more detailed information on disability including not only due to generic causes but also environmental causes, as well as track the access to services and identify barriers.
  • To define better goals to guarantee that progress can be measured and monitor progress towards the policies and laws in country.
  • To make sure more resources are available to improve the lives of children and adults with disability, including intellectual disability and making sure they have equal share of resources allocated to them.
  • To seek a more multi sectorial engagement to ensure that the issues related to disability are addressed equally and represented in the post 2015 agenda.

“If I could say one thing to African leaders, it would be: Don’t leave the children behind. African children with intellectual disabilities are now shunned and hidden. Let them out into the sunlight of inclusion.”  said Mphatso Chiphwanya, a Special Olympics athlete since 2005 who sits on the Board of Special Olympics Malawi.

The African Leaders Forum on Disability brought together senior government officials from [eleven] African countries and chief executives or senior representatives from organizations such as the African Development Bank, the African Union, Catholic Relief Services, the Federation of Disability Organisations in Malawi, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Lions Clubs International, UNAIDS, UNESCO, UNICEF, and the World Bank, for total representation of [25] African nations.

The Forum was hosted by the President of Malawi to increase awareness of the inequality and marginalization faced by people with disabilities, as indicated by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the 2011 “World Report on Disability” by the World Health Organization and World Bank, the 2012 UN Consultative Meeting of the African Disability Forum, and the 2013 UN High-level Meeting on Disability and Development.

Forum partners include the Golisano Foundation, Lions Club International, and UNICEF.

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