Time to reflect on children with disabilities

Tomorrow, 16th June, marks 21 years since the Organisation of African Unity, as the African Union was known then, immortalised the Soweto Uprising of June 1976 by declaring 16thJune every year, the Day of the African Child.

In June 1976, 10 000 high school students, angry at being forced to learn in Afrikaans, seen as the language of apartheid, took to the streets of Soweto, South Africa in peaceful protest. The authorities responded with force, lobbing teargas into the crowd as the students retaliated with stones, sticks, rocks and whatever else they could lay their hands on.

When the mayhem was over, 152 students lay dead, many of them teenagers. The protests continued into 1977, by which time over 700 young lives had been lost. On 26 June that year, the government revoked the teaching of Afrikaans in all-black schools.

The world mourned the loss of life, even as the apartheid regime was roundly condemned for its malevolence. Fifteen years later, in 1991, the heroics of those young students were remembered by African Heads of State who, in declaring June 16 the Day of the African Child, not only recognised the children’s contributions to the struggle against apartheid, but affirmed the centrality of children inthe struggles, hopes, and aspirations of African nations.

Here in Malawi, we will be commemorating the Day of the African Child in Mzimba tomorrow under the theme “The Rights of Children with Disabilities: The Duty to Protect, Respect, Promote and Fulfil.”

In UNICEF, we have been thinking a lot lately about children with disabilities. Our executive director, Anthony Lake, has made it his mission to focus the organisation on reaching the most vulnerable and marginalised children. The reasoning is that unless these children are provided essential services like health, education, water and sanitation, and protection, it is impossible to talk about real and tangible progress.

The majority of children with disabilities fall into this category. They live a difficult and often uncertain existence. Here in Malawi, I am certain this is the case in many other countries, disabled children are excluded from society, hidden away by families scarred by the shame and stigma cruelly associated with disability.

Our views on disability are often rooted in the wrong belief that disability is the child’s, or the family’s fault, that somehow, disability reflects a shortcoming on the individual or the family.

There is clearly a need for a change in mind-set.

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child both contain explicit articles on the obligation of States like Malawi to ensure that all children with disabilities enjoy their rights on an equal basis with other children and to promote their best interests. In this regard, I am happy that Parliament last week finally passed the Disability Bill into law after eight years of lobbying.

The new law is an important step in making sure that children with disabilities can finally receive the protection, care and access to services that they deserve. But the law is only the first step and a lot more work still lies ahead.

Though, the 2008 Census estimates that half a million Malawians have a disability, we do not know what proportion of these arechildren.

This is why in the next few weeks, we will be conducting a study with the Government to have a better understanding of how children with disabilities live in Malawi, what services are available to them, and the needs of children living with a disabled parent or caregiver. We want the study to come up with recommendations on actions to broaden access to services by children with disabilities, improve their care and safety, and reduce stigma and discrimination.

No child in any country, village or community should have their rights violated simply because they have a disability.

—The author is UNICEF Representative in Malawi.

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