Content note: This post includes discussions of sexual and physical violence committed against women and children with disabilities.
Last week, Human Rights Watch issued a report, ‘As if We Weren’t Human,’ on the violence, isolation, and discrimination experienced by women and children with disabilities in Uganda. Northern Uganda is emerging from decades of conflict, and as the country works on rebuilding itself, disability rights advocates are very concerned about the role of people with disabilities in Ugandan society. The report documents the conditions for many people with disabilities living in Uganda, and challenges the government to take a more active role in protecting its disabled citizens.
It’s worth noting that several other African nations are in positions similar to Uganda’s, and the findings of the report may be more widely applicable. The report highlights the consequences of leaving the most vulnerable members of society to fend for themselves.
It is estimated that around 20% of the population in Uganda is disabled. Many of those disabilities are acquired as a direct result of the nation’s conflict; women have lost limbs to landmines, been paralysed by bullets, and have developed disabilities in the wake of things like polio infections caused by a complete breakdown in vaccination programmes. Some women have injuries inflicted during the conflict as punishment, such as having their noses and ears cut off for ‘collusion.’ War tends to be brutal, and it tends to leave distinctive disabilities behind, both increasing the number of people with disabilities in society and making it easy for people to identify people who have lived through the war, an issue that can come with its own set of problems.
Women with disabilities trying to integrate into society are facing an uphill battle as they attempt to leave refugee camps and return to their communities, find ways to support themselves, and struggle with the fact that many communities have been shattered and the extensive social support networks that once existed are gone now. Poverty is a chronic problem for many disabled women that makes it even harder for them to access services they need. Disconnection and fragmentation of society has very serious consequences for people who need networks of people to survive, including both people who are attempting to establish full autonomy for themselves, and people who need full time care and assistance.
The report also documents that women and girls with disabilities are more likely to experience sexual violence, sometimes repeatedly, and that they lack access to reproductive health services. People with disabilities cannot even get HIV testing to determine if they’ve been infected after being raped. Other gender-based violence and abuse has also been widely documented; as in the rest of the world, people with disabilities are more at risk of experiencing physical violence as well as emotional abuse. Psychological issues often nip at the heels of people subjected repeatedly to sexual and physical violence, creating the risk of a mental health crisis in Uganda.
Discrimination against people with disabilities is also widespread; for example, a woman with HIV named Candace says “I cannot bathe near others. My neighbors think that the water that comes off me has HIV in it. They say I will get the community sick if they touch the water.” Some of the discrimination stems from ignorance, the result of inadequate education and outreach, two common problems in communities torn by war that don’t have the time or personnel to be providing these kinds of services. Other discrimination is the result of unchallenged social attitudes, made harder to challenge by the isolation of people with disabilities. When people aren’t interacting with the subjects of their discrimination on a daily basis, it’s much harder to break down the beliefs and attitudes that contribute to the perpetuation of that discrimination.
The report concludes that the government and NGOs working in Uganda need to take a more active role in ensuring that people with disabilities are not left behind during recovery efforts. This includes actively working on accessibility issues in Uganda, educating government representatives and health care providers about disability issues, and fighting discriminatory attitudes with education and outreach. As it is, people with disabilities are already being left out, and there’s a lot of catching up to do to address the situation before it gets even worse.
Social attitudes like those highlighted in the Human Rights Watch report are not unique to Uganda, nor are they unique to war-torn nations or nations in the developing world. Some of the same problems seen in Uganda can be seen in the United States, for example, where people with disabilities are more at risk of sexual and physical violence than nondisabled people, and where we lack access to reproductive health services and sexual education because of social attitudes about our sexuality. These are global issues, and the globe as a whole needs to fight them. Personally, I would love to see Human Rights Watch generate similar reports for every nation on Earth.