Disabled people – especially women – are often the last to be considered in the aftermath of wars and natural disasters. In the aftermath of war, civil unrest and disaster, there are always untold stories, but only rarely do you hear of the isolation, neglect and abuse of women and girls with disabilities.
Charity lived in a camp for internally displaced persons in northern Uganda for 11 years because of the brutal conflict between the Lord's Resistance Army and the Ugandan government. As a child, she lost the use of her legs due to an undiagnosed illness. When I met her in April, she told me that others in the camp said to her: "You are useless. You are a waste of food. You should just die so that others can eat the food."
While living in the camp, she was raped and had a child. She wanted to report the rape but the rapist's family threatened to take away her child. She'd like to get tested for HIV, but because she would have to crawl a long distance and sleep on the road to get to the testing site, she's resigned to not knowing. She was promised a wheelchair by an aid group, but would have to travel more than 45km to get it.
Unfortunately, Charity's story is not unique. Women and girls with disabilities in northern Uganda experience rampant stigma and exclusion, sexual- and gender-based violence, and insurmountable obstacles to accessing justice and medical care. Before the conflict in Uganda, communities and family members supported people with disabilities. However, years of abductions, displacements and violence have eroded, if not destroyed, these networks.
Some of the women I interviewed were born with disabilities, others had been affected by diseases such as polio, and others were shot or wounded by landmines during the conflict. According to a national survey in 2007, approximately one person in five in Uganda has disabilities. In northern Uganda, because of the long and brutal conflict, disability rates are thought to be even higher. Yet, despite their numbers, individuals with disabilities remain invisible; inconvenient and uncomfortable reminders of the conflict, perceived burdens to redevelopment and renewal.
Now, with greater peace and security, the people of northern Uganda are trying to rebuild their lives. The challenges are daunting as families return home, settle more permanently in the camps, or relocate to start fresh. For women with disabilities, the process is even more complex and gruelling and most don't have the same choices. Many are deciding they are better off remaining in camps, where they may at least be getting some services.
Uganda receives hundreds of millions of dollars in development assistance annually, yet women with disabilities such as Charity are not benefiting. The government has emphasised infrastructure over individual needs, and has done little to consider the particular needs of people with disabilities.
Development plans might include ramps for schools and hospitals, but without a wheelchair or sign language interpreters, access to education or reproductive healthcare is a distant reality.
In rebuilding the north, Uganda and its donors have a chance to change that. People with disabilities should be included in education, programmes to prevent and address sexual- and gender-based violence, reproductive health services, HIV testing, prevention and treatment, and income-generating programmes. Police stations and healthcare centres need ramps, trained staff and sign language interpreters. In planning these efforts, people with disabilities themselves, particularly women, need to be seen and heard.
These lessons apply not only to northern Uganda, but to emergency, conflict and refugee situations around the world. The first step is listening to people with disabilities and recognising their needs and rights: to be treated with dignity, to participate fully in society, to access services, to achieve the highest attainable standard of health.
Of course, all of these efforts will not immediately change the daily stigma and discrimination women with disabilities face, including at the hands of their families and neighbours. But it is a start, and it will inevitably undermine these prejudices and bring individuals with disabilities out of the shadows and into everyday life.
The Ugandan government is among nearly 90 countries that have ratified the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, pledging to give people with disabilities, including women, full equality and freedom from discrimination. The government should ensure that their actions equal their promises. Charity and the millions of women with disabilities in Uganda are counting on it.