Status of Disability Rights in Southern Africa

It often feels as if advocates for different groups are trying to out-do each other in order to claim that their group is the most marginalised. But new research on disability rights in southern Africa should end the argument once and for all – the most marginalised people are people with disabilities.

Richard Lee's picture


Strategic communications for WWF

June 5th, 2012

It often feels as if advocates for different groups are trying to out-do each other in order to claim that their group is the most marginalised. But new research on disability rights in southern Africa should end the argument once and for all – the most marginalised people are people with disabilities.

Back in 2010, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) – in partnership with Open Society Foundations’ Disability Rights Initiative and the Open Society Foundation for South Africa – undertook a research project into disability rights in nine countries in southern Africa to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the state of disability in the region.

The final reports have just been released and the findings make for depressing reading.

As the research shows, people living with disabilities (PWD) are the most marginalised people in a region where life is already difficult for the majority of the population. PWD have the highest rates of poverty, deprivation, malnutrition, ill-health and child mortality – and have been worst affected by the deteriorating conditions across the region.

In all countries, the rights of PWD are not given any priority by their governments. Usually, any ministry dealing with disability also has to address other marginalised groups such as women and children, so disability rights and the protection of PWD receive minimal state funding and focus.

Most of the organisations and individuals interviewed during the research had to conduct their activities and advocacy work on an extremely tight budget – in most cases with little or no state support. In depth country interviews showed that the continued survival of disability rights organisations was one of their greatest challenges.

Yet despite all the hardships faced by the disability community, remarkable work is taking place – work that is highlighted in a separate publication containing the country-specific reports.

Both reports include a variety of recommendations that would advance disability rights work in the specific countries and the region as a whole – and provide valuable information that OSISA and its OSF partners will utilise to support the protection and promotion of the rights of PWD in southern Africa.

While there are a host of general and specific recommendations, some of the most important are:

  • Disabled Peoples’ Organisations (DPOs) must communicate to their governments that disability is a cross-cutting development priority and not a separate side-issue;
  • DPOs need to illustrate the many long-term consequences of PWDs being denied access to education and employment; the extra burdens carried by women with disability; and, the inter-linkages between disability, poverty, gender, vulnerability, sexual abuse, violence, and HIV and AIDS. The common lesson to be elicited from all these topics is that they interact to reinforce poverty and powerlessness, a situation that most DPO members will recognise from their personal experience.
  • There needs to be much greater awareness – and use – of the UN Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities through workshops on the content and purpose of the Convention and its potential as an advocacy tool;
  • Most DPOs need up-to-date training in advocacy and lobbying methods, and the range of strategies that should be employed at different times and under various circumstances;
  • Assistance is urgently needed to improve regional and international networks and the networking skills of DPO staff, so that each organisation can learn from others in DPOs, human rights bodies and development organisations, and identify benchmarks that can be applied in their own practice;
  • As emphasised repeatedly in the report, improvement in the general educational levels of PWDs is perhaps the most important issue that the disability movement in southern Africa needs to pursue. Whether their efforts are directed toward inclusive education and/or specialised education programmes for disabled children, DPOs and governments in the region need the financial support of donors and the expertise of different kinds of education and disability specialists to meet the technical, teacher training and other requirements of schools that offer PWDs the facilities they need;
  • There is a need to counteract the recent decrease in capacity and motivation of many DPOs and their leaders. Perhaps the most important of these is the question: Who, in these circumstances, will be the torch- bearers for the realisation of disability rights? If DPOs are to continue to make a contribution, their organisations and the disability movement itself must be rejuvenated – and the report provides some instructive examples and best practices; and,
  • Finally, there is a need to consider ways of bringing about major changes in the mind set of non-disabled people in southern African societies. In all nine countries, there were shocking reports of pervasive negative stereotyping, stigma and discrimination visited upon PWDs. The worst of these occurred in the rural areas.

If the rights of PWDs are ever to be taken seriously, programmes that involve the whole of society will have to be undertaken (possibly with the help of television and radio) to counteract these false stereotypes. These campaigns could follow in the footsteps of others used to break down prejudice and misinformation, like racial and gender discrimination and the stigma related to HIV and AIDS.

Whether sufficient political will and public resources can be found to accomplish these purposes is questionable, but the cause of the disability movement must continue to be advocated for until some ground is gained.

People with disabilities and disability issues are severely neglected in most countries in southern Africa, and most of the DPOs appear to be ineffective. Therefore, it is time for disability activists to look for new ideas and fresh inspiration, which should, at the very least, include innovative ways to persuade governments and donors to try out new approaches and pilot projects.



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