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Chained, Locked Up, and Abused … Because of a Disability

Governments Should Ban ‘Shackling’ This Mental Health Day

This man with a real or perceived psychosocial disability is one of the residents at Marsiyo’s House, a private family-run social care facility in Kebumen, Central Java, Indonesia. The crumbling shelter where he is chained leaves him exposed to hours of direct sunlight and constant dust. © 2018 Andrea Star Reese

Sitting in a dusty courtyard of the Holy Ghost Coptic Church in Kisumu city, in western Kenya, I heard Paul (a pseudonym), approaching before I saw him. Clink. Clink. Clink. The sound of a human being struggling to walk with heavy metal chains around his ankles, waist, and hands. Paul had been living in chains for five years.

“The chain is so heavy, it doesn’t feel right,” Paul said. “It makes me sad. I stay in a small room with seven men. I’m not allowed to wear clothes, only underwear. I have to go to the toilet in a bucket. I eat porridge in the morning and, if I’m lucky, I find bread at night, but not every night…. It’s not how a human being is supposed to be. A human being should be free.”

Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children – some as young as 10 – have experienced being shackled in over 60 countries around the world.

Many are locked in sheds, cages, or tethered to trees, where they are forced to eat, sleep, urinate, and defecate in the same tiny area, sometimes for years at a time. Why? Simply because they have a psychosocial disability (a mental health condition).

This inhumane practice – called “shackling” – occurs because of widespread stigma surrounding mental health and a lack of access to adequate support services. Families often shackle relatives in their own homes or in overcrowded and unsanitary institutions, as well as in religious healing centers, where they are often forced to fast, take medications or herbal concoctions, and face physical and sexual violence. 

While a number of countries are paying greater attention to the issue of mental health, shackling remains largely out of sight. There is no data or coordinated governmental efforts to eradicate shackling. In response, Human Rights Watch has been working with organizations of people with disabilities and human rights and anti-torture organizations around the world on a global #BreakTheChains campaign to eradicate the practice.

Today on World Mental Health Day, governments should ban shackling. It's an important first step to combat stigma associated with mental health, and develop quality, accessible, and affordable community-based support services.

** This article is part of a series marking the 10th anniversary of Human Rights Watch's Disability Rights Division.

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