New Internationalist

Power struggle

Issue 384

Uganda has an impressive array of people with disabilities involved in politics. But do they get to have their say? Joseph Walugembe reports with Julia Peckett.

As recently as the 1960s and 1970s, disabled people in Uganda were subject only to pity and charity. However, in the mid-1980s, Disabled Peoples’ Organizations (DPOs) in the rich world started arguing that international development agencies should provide direct financial support to their counterparts in the Global South. So, with support from abroad, disability groups in Uganda were transformed into strong representative associations. In 1987, local DPOs came together to form an umbrella organization – the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (NUDIPU) – which used the foreign assistance it received to enable disabled people to get a foothold in politics.

The Government’s attitude also helped. In 1995 an overhaul of the constitution embedded the involvement of disabled people and other vulnerable groups in active politics. Disabled people are now guaranteed five representatives in parliament, at least one of whom must be a woman.

Since 1995, disabled people are participating in politics, both through NUDIPU as leaders of district unions and as independent councillors and members of parliament. A disabled woman, Florence Nayiga Sekabira, has held the position of Minister of State for Elderly and Disability Affairs since 1998. The National Council for Disability was established in August 2004, focusing on improving service provision, and the Equal Opportunities Commission will also soon be in place.

Yet disabled people in Uganda remain impoverished and at the margins of society. Deep-rooted beliefs that disability is the result of a curse or witchcraft are widespread, and the stigma attached to having a disabled child affects the entire family.

Translating theory into practice remains a challenge. The Government has perpetually failed to prioritize the social sector when allocating resources. Miro Michael, the District Rehabilitation Officer of Masaka District, implied that the total budget allocation for his department for 2003-04 was equivalent to $180. With this nominal amount, his department is expected to provide for specialist equipment and the mobilization of disabled people.

My experience of working on disability issues with the Uganda National Association of the Blind and the African Union of the Blind is that many governments do have the necessary resources available to facilitate the work of disabled people, having developed partnerships with international NGOs who are currently plugging large funding gaps. Yet as Alex Ndeezi, MP for disabled people in the central region of Uganda, observes: ‘Donor organizations have been funding NUDIPU and other disability organizations to the tune of 99 per cent of their expenditure. This level of dependence is of great concern for the disability movement.’ He points out that excessive donor interference kills local initiatives and undermines morale and self-respect.

Political space for activism alone may not transform the lives of people who have for so long been pushed aside

While affirmative action has provided the space for disabled people to ascend to positions of leadership, it tends to benefit only a small group. Women with disabilities are also less likely to benefit. Except in the area of political representation, no practical policy action has been taken in their favour. The majority of disabled women in rural areas continue to live in grinding poverty.

Another challenge is that people with certain types of disability are marginalized even within the disability movement. People living with mental illness are systematically excluded and are believed to be cursed. Another group is deafblind people. During a recent meeting of DPOs attempting to implement an HIV/AIDS awareness project, an officer from NUDIPU blocked the nomination of a deafblind person on to the steering committee, arguing that as there were blind and deaf representatives, the issues pertinent to deafblind people would be taken into account. Yet people who are both deaf and blind face unique communication challenges and have no say in their communities.

One might attribute this marginalization to a host of factors – fear, lack of understanding of the nature of deafblindness and the challenges of communication, the limited resources available, and the absence of documented information on inclusion for people with a wide range of disabilities.

While this inequality of opportunity within the disability movement is problematic, the prevailing attitude of society remains the largest mountain to climb. Fred Kibira, a councillor for disabled people from Wakiso District describes the attitude of non-disabled councillors towards him as ‘second rate’. ‘It is difficult to obtain support from other members on disability issues and often the voices of the two councillors for disabled people are drowned.’ A report from Oxfam stated: ‘In many instances, councillors are finding it very difficult to pin local councils down to their budgetary decisions. These have often remained commitments on paper only. The councillors representing disabled people are not able to monitor how funds allocated for disability are actually disbursed.’ A further setback is that there is no data on disabled people available for use in effective programme planning.

Political space for activism and organization alone may not transform the lives of people who have for so long been pushed aside. While disabled people in Uganda must continue to demand the right to representation and participation, they should also be pushing for disability issues to be fully integrated within the Government’s plans and budgets. If the Government were genuinely to commit itself to making funds available to promote the well-being and empowerment of disabled people, the positive impact could be immeasurable.

Joseph Walugembe and Julia Peckett work for Sense International, an organization supporting services for deafblind people through partnerships with local organizations and governments worldwide.

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