Following the United Nations (UN) Decade of Disabled Persons between 1983-1992, the first African Decade of Persons with Disabilities started in 1999 and ended in 2009. The first Continental Plan of Action of the African Decade states in its Introduction, “The UN Decade of Disabled Persons had its successes and failures…its successes which were more pronounced in the northern hemisphere than elsewhere.” This was the primary reason why the Asia and Pacific Decade of Disabled Persons (1993-2002), the Arab Decade of Disabled Persons (2003-2012), and the African Decade started. Both the Asia and Pacific and the African Decades were extended for another decade. Now that more than 110 countries around the globe have ratified the Convention, has there been significant positive change in the lives of persons with disabilities at grass roots in the global South? This writing is related to what Tom Shakespeare addressed and further provoked by Kristín Björnsdóttir but in the context of global South.
The Convention has accelerated the paradigm shift from hitherto dominant medical and charity-based approaches into human rights-based approach to disability. The understanding that human rights discourse comes from the global North, and that imposing this human rights-based approach to other cultures is Eurocentric and imperialistic (e.g. Kennedy 2004:18; Uvin 2004:17), is misleading. For instance, Uganda has been taking a human rights-based approach to disability already for long before the Convention. The rights of persons with disabilities are specifically stipulated in the Ugandan Constitution of 1995 as follows: ‘‘Persons with disabilities have a right to respect and human dignity and the State and society shall take appropriate measures to ensure that they realize their full mental and physical potential’’. This Constitution is one of the first ones to recognize sign language for Deaf people. Moreover, Ugandan government has an affirmative action policy which has realized political representation of persons with disabilities from all levels of its government structure from villages to the Parliament. As a result, many persons with disabilities at grass roots in villages have been identified as potential voters, because only persons with disabilities can vote for their political representatives. When I wanted to interview deaf women in villages in December 2008, the disability councilor knew exactly where they live, whereas I had to find persons with disabilities by myself in Central Asian countries during my visits between 2001-2003. Both the political will and the disability movement are quite strong in Uganda, despite a number of challenges (including, e.g., definition of disabilities, politics, and poverty).
At the African Continental level, I have observed during my visit to Ethiopia in April 2012 that the African Union has been soliciting the African Union Disability Architecture which includes legal protocol to be adopted by the member states, while the African Decade Secretariat is finalizing its second Continental Plan of Action. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Disability, Shuaib Chalklen, is establishing an African Disability Forum as part of the African Union Disability Architecture. Hence, both top-down and bottom-up approaches have been taking place for respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights of persons with disabilities in Uganda.
As for Ugandan persons with disabilities at grass roots level, however, realities are quite mixed. Lived experiences of Ugandan persons with disabilities, shows that those who had been more empowered in enabling environment benefited from international and development cooperation activities that operationalize human rights-based approaches. For instance, on the one hand, the Deaf Member of Parliament representing persons with disabilities, whose sign language interpreters are employed by the government, vigorously pressures the government for mainstreaming disability by utilizing the Convention and international cooperation. On the other hand, a mother of a deaf woman in a village called the deaf daughter “stupid” all the time in front of her during my interview. This deaf woman has never been to school, never learned any mother tongue in her hearing family environment, and met only one single deaf woman in her life. The total adult literacy rate in Uganda is 73%, whereas 57% for women according to UNICEF statistics. Thus illiteracy is not uncommon in Uganda.
When it comes back to the Convention, it often uses a phrase, “on an equal basis with others.” But what about Global South? What happens when “others” in the same community also do not enjoy human rights to a great extent? Is the Convention beneficial only for persons with disabilities in more enabling environment where human rights have been relatively more respected, protected and fulfilled? This treatment gap among persons with disabilities is a great concern. This is a largely overshadowed topic so far but is worth taking into account not to ignore realities of marginalized persons with disabilities particularly in the global South when operationalizing the Convention in practice, as the majority of persons with disabilities live there.
African Union. (2002) Continental Plan of Action for the African Decade of Persons with Disabilities. On http://www.africa-union.org/child/Decade%20Plan%20of%20Action%20-Final.pdf, Visited on 25.4.2012.
Kennedy, D. (2004) The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism. Prinston University Press. Prinston.
Uvin, P. (2004) Human Rights and Development. Kumarian Press. Bloomfield.
UNICEF. (2010) Statistics. On www.unicef.org/infobycountry/uganda_statistics.html Visited on 9.5.2012.
Katsui, H. (forthcoming in September 2012) Disabilities, Human Rights and International Cooperation. Center for Human Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Helsinki. (It will be available for free on http://www.kynnys.fi/vike.html)