Fund — exposes the chilling reality of the plight of children living with disabilities.
Dedicating Unicef’s flagship annual publication to children with disabilities puts the spotlight on these children whose talents or aspirations are constrained by ignorance, intolerance and stigma.
Highlights from the report reveal the stark reality of children living with disabilities globally. Although speculative, the data suggests that some 93 million children around world aged 14 or younger live with a moderate or severe disability of some kind.
According to the World Health Organisation in many developing countries only 5-15 percent of the people who need walking frames, hearing aids or other such assistive devices are able to obtain them.
Because the methods of classification and methodology for collecting disability statistics are varied, it is difficult to determine precise data on the population of people living with a disability in Zimbabwe. While consistent and accurate information on children with disabilities helps reveal the extent and level of access to fundamental rights and essential social services, the national data survey tools in Zimbabwe do not provide data on people with disability.
One of the few attempts to provide useful information on the living conditions and quality of life of people with disability in Zimbabwe is the Disability Living Conditions Survey, published in 2003.
According to this survey, 29 percent of children with disability (34 percent female and 22 percent male) never attended school, in comparison with 10 percent of non-disabled children (12 percent female and 8 percent male) — this is a differential of almost three-fold.
Many children with disabilities experience stigma from birth and are prone to exclusion, concealment, abandonment, institutionalisation and abuse. Compared to their peers, they are routinely denied access to health, education and social services.
Data limitations notwithstanding, children living with disabilities in the more remote areas, especially rural areas in Zimbabwe face even bigger challenges and are subjected to greater discrimination with limited or no access to any services compared to disabled children in the urban areas.
These children, along with their parents — their mothers especially — are more likely to be ostracised and banished from society, being accused of witchcraft and other curses. As a result, these children face even more exclusion and deprivation. Indeed, disability is invariably perceived in very negative and pejorative ways.
It is indeed saddening that people living with disabilities — especially children — encounter multiple attitudinal, environmental and institutional barriers that militate against their effective inclusion with Zimbabwean society. It is a common perception within Zimbabwe that disabled people are passive and economically unproductive and therefore constitute a “burden” upon society.
Government support to people with disabilities in Zimbabwe was at its peak in the mid-1990s and was a regional best practice example of Government commitment to supporting the most vulnerable. However, the current administrative and institutional infrastructure arrangements are an example of the significant erosion of basic social services for these children.
Limited funding from Treasury continues to be available for the restoration of Zimbabwe’s renowned “Rehabilitation Units” at Government clinics and hospitals; specialised services in schools and dedicated assistance grants and procurement through the Department of Social Services within the Ministry of Labour and Social Services.
Disability issues have not had the high-level priority status within the Government of Zimbabwe, despite the establishment of the National Disability Board and the appointment of a Presidential Advisor on disability issues.
Current efforts by the Government, supported by development partners, seek to change this through conducting a new nationally representative survey on disability to provide more reliable evidence that can feed into programmes and policies, complemented by the ramping-up advocacy and programming to ensure the realisation of the rights of all people — especially children — living with disabilities.
Programmatic efforts to revive dedicated services for children living with disabilities also include a national cash transfer programme benefiting more than 30 000 of the poorest and most vulnerable families; 60 percent of which include people with disabilities.
Slow and steady work has begun with the Ministry of Health to restore dedicated rehabilitation units to identify and treat children with disabilities as well as provide family care. A system for tracking children with disabilities and main-streaming is now included in the national health information system.
Last week, the Government ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities; bolstering Zimbabwe’s already strong legislative and policy framework for these vulnerable children. These efforts mean little, however, without long term, sustained and substantial financial resources.
Changing perceptions and policies with the active involvement of children with disabilities is vital to fulfil their rights and the promise of a truly inclusive society. In addition, we should strive for more inclusive societies that improve the situation of many children with disabilities. Key steps have to be taken to accelerate progress and reduce disparities.
As Zimbabweans, we need to remind ourselves that a child is not disabled because they cannot walk, hear, see or have albinism; they are disabled by a society that excludes them. It is important for us all to focus on a child’s abilities and potential instead of what they cannot do! Concentrating on the abilities and potential of children with disabilities would create benefits for society as a whole.
Children with disabilities have the same rights and needs as all children. They have the right to survive and thrive, to be included in the lives of their communities and societies, to live healthy lives and reach their full potential, and to become productive members of their societies. However, children with disabilities have too often been invisible in policies, in national programmes, in data and in societies exacerbating their exclusion and contributing to inequity.
They are visibly absent from large scale funding disbursements. They often have less access to services such as health and education, and are more likely to be subjected to neglect and abuse. Working with the Government of Zimbabwe, Unicef and partners want to change that!
- Samson Muradzikwa is the chief of social policy at Unicef Zimbabwe.