Government Needs to Protect Their Rights, Ensure Access to Services as North Rebuilds
August 26, 2010
One of the untold stories of the long war in Northern Uganda and its aftermath is the isolation, neglect, and abuse of women and girls with disabilities. As Ugandans in the north struggle to reclaim their lives, the government and humanitarian agencies need to make sure that women with disabilities are not left out.
Shantha Rau Barriga, disability rights researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch

(Kampala) - Women with disabilities in northern Uganda experience ongoing discrimination and sexual and gender-based violence, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Many are unable to gain access to basic services, including health care and justice, and they have been largely ignored in post-conflict reconstruction efforts.

The 73-page report, "‘As If We Weren't Human': Discrimination and Violence against Women with Disabilities in Northern Uganda," describes frequent abuse and discrimination by strangers, neighbors, and even family members against women and girls with disabilities in the north.  Women interviewed for the report said they were not able to get basic provisions such as food, clothing, and shelter in camps for displaced persons or in their own communities. One woman with a physical disability who lived in such a camp told Human Rights Watch that people said to her, "You are useless. You are a waste of food. You should just die so that others can eat the food."  The research was conducted in six districts of northern Uganda - a region recently emerging from over two decades of brutal conflict between the rebel Lord's Resistance Army and the government.

"One of the untold stories of the long war in Northern Uganda and its aftermath is the isolation, neglect, and abuse of women and girls with disabilities," said Shantha Rau Barriga, disability rights researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch.  "As Ugandans in the north struggle to reclaim their lives, the government and humanitarian agencies need to make sure that women with disabilities are not left out."

The report is based on interviews with 64 women and girls with a wide range of disabilities, some caused by diseases such as polio and others by landmines or gunshot wounds during the protracted conflict. According to a 2007 national survey, approximately 20 percent of people in Uganda have disabilities. However, northern Uganda is believed to have higher disability rates because of war-related injuries and limited access to treatment or vaccinations for illnesses.

Human Rights Watch's research suggests that women with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence. More than one-third of the women interviewed told Human Rights Watch that they had experienced some form of sexual or physical abuse. None had been able to press criminal charges or pursue prosecutions of their attackers.

"Women with disabilities are often not given any information about sexual or reproductive health and HIV," Barriga said. "But they have real sexual health needs, and they also need to be protected from sexual violence and be able to get justice if abused."

Women with disabilities, the report notes, are especially vulnerable to HIV because of poverty, difficulty in negotiating safe sex, lack of accessible information, and susceptibility to violence and rape.  Many of the women could not reach health centers or police stations, which are often situated far away or are inaccessible for lack of sign language interpreters, Braille signage or ramps for physical access. Others encountered discriminatory attitudes by staff and could not get assistance even from family members.

"I cannot bathe near others," Candace, a woman with HIV and who has an amputated leg from a landmine, told Human Rights Watch. "My neighbors think that the water that comes off of me has HIV in it. They say I will get the community sick if they touch the water. There has been HIV sensitization in the community but there is no real change in attitudes."

Among the recommendations in the report is that the Ugandan government should adequately address the needs of women with disabilities in post-conflict development plans and programs. The report also calls on the government to ensure access for women with disabilities to mainstream government programs, particularly with regard to sexual and gender-based violence, reproductive health, and HIV.

Human Rights Watch found that the vast majority of humanitarian aid organizations do not have specific programs to meet the needs of people with disabilities. The report recommends that humanitarian aid organizations partner with organizations representing people with disabilities to ensure that information about the resettlement process and available support services reach them.

One of the key problems is the lack of data on the number of women with disabilities in northern Uganda and their access to services, Human Rights Watch said. The government and humanitarian agencies need to collect this information and use it to develop more inclusive programs for women with disabilities.

The government of Uganda has an obligation to respect the rights of persons with disabilities under international and regional laws, the national constitution, and other domestic legislation. As a state party to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Uganda should ensure that women with disabilities enjoy all human rights on an equal basis with others.  In practice, the government of Uganda needs to do more to implement its laws to protect women with disabilities in northern Uganda from violence and to ensure their access to basic services, Human Rights Watch said.

"The war has hidden and compounded the isolation and discrimination against women and girls with disabilities," Barriga said. "But now the government has a special opportunity - and a special responsibility - to meet their needs." 

Selected Accounts from Individuals Interviewed for "As If We Weren't Human"

"There were 12 people in the house on the day it was burned down [by the Lord's Resistance Army]. Those of us closer to the door survived. I lay on my stomach and protected my heart.  My head got burned, and I lost my sight.  I don't hear well."
- Edna, a 29-year-old woman who fled her rural village for Lira town in 2004. Edna is also HIV-positive.
"I was raped three times in this house one week ago. The man came at night, so I was unable to recognize him. I have not told anyone, not even my mother. I was thinking of bringing a panga [machete] to bed with me in case he comes again. I fear that if I report, then I will need to know my HIV status. I want to check my HIV status at a health center but I do not have transport to town. The hospital is far and my [hand-crank] bicycle is broken. Others in the community will say that it's my fault and that I run around with men."
- Angela, a 20-year-old woman born with a physical disability, Amuru district
"If I go back to my original home, I'll be like a child, waiting to be fed."
- Mary, woman with physical disability living in a displaced persons camp, Amuru district
"Delivery beds are extremely high and have wheels. [The nurses] tell you to get on the bed. You try to get on, but the bed is rolling. They say, ‘You get on the bed!  How did you get on the bed where you got pregnant?'"
- Hon. Nalule Safia Juuko, member of parliament representing women with disabilities
"The neighbors beat my children. When they played with the neighbors' children, they were told to go away.  They said, ‘You'll spread deafness to my family.'"
- Erica, a deaf woman who lost one of her children during childbirth because the nurse did not communicate to her that she was going to have twins, Lira district