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“I used to be tied up at home with a plastic rope,” Rafi, a 29-year-old man with a mental health condition living on the outskirts of Jakarta, told me. “I had to go to the toilet on the spot, in the drain in the room. My heart broke when they chained me.”

In countries like Indonesia, more than 57,000 people like Rafi, with mental health conditions ranging from depression to schizophrenia, have been chained or locked in confined spaces at least once in their lives for months, if not years – despite a national ban on shackling in Indonesia since 1977. Due to the lack of availability and access to mental health care, prevalent stigma, and belief that mental health conditions are a result of evil spirits, families believe they have no option but to chain their relatives.

Today is International Human Rights Day, a day the world celebrates the rights guaranteed to all people without distinction. But for many people with disabilities around the world, these rights and freedoms continue to be a distant dream

In India, I met women with mental health conditions or intellectual disabilities, such as Down syndrome or forms of cerebral palsy, who were stripped of the right to make their own choices: to manage property, vote, or even to marry. They had lost the right to make their own medical decisions and ended up locked up in mental hospitals or institutions against their will.

Deepali, a 46-year-old woman who was forcibly confined to a mental hospital by her family in Delhi, told me, “I was scared: you have no control over anything they do there – they hold power over you and do what they want. You are treated worse than animals; it’s an alternate reality.”

Simply signing international agreements isn’t enough. On International Human Rights Day, India, Indonesia, and countries around the world should enforce the commitments they undertook to people with disabilities by changing their laws to recognize them as equal human beings who can make their own choices. They need access to support and services so they can live in the community like everyone else. And they deserve access to justice when their rights are violated.

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