The leaders of tomorrow: Promoting and protecting the rights of children living with disabilities in Rwanda
By Shamima Yasmine
RWANDA, July 2012: The Government of Rwanda has embarked on an agenda to include children in all issues that affect their lives. At a recent National Children’s Summit they also made a move to include for the first time ever, children living with disabilities.
For 18year old Eric Ngabonziza, the opportunity to put the issue of disability at the forefront of the Summit’s agenda and to have Rwanda’s Prime Minister listen to his concerns, the challenges he faces and the recommendations and hopes he has for the future was a truly unforgettable experience.
“This was the first time that our voices have been heard, the first time that we have been included and asked to participate, the first time that we have been considered the same as children living without disabilities”, says Eric through a sign interpreter.
Eric is one of more than 60,000 children living with a disability in Rwanda. He was born with a sensory disability and is unable to hear or speak and uses sign language to communicate with his friends and family. It was through a sign interpreter, that Eric, who was elected as the President of the Children’s Summit, was able to address an audience of 800 children and policy makers and request that the rights and special needs of children living with disabilities are advanced in Rwanda.
Children living with disabilities in Rwanda face several challenges that prevent them from reaching their full potential. Often stigma, poverty and exploitation are factors which compound their situations, making participation and inclusion in daily life a struggle.
“At school I do not have an interpreter, I follow my lessons from the blackboard and I miss things most of the time, it is very difficult for me to keep up”, says Eric as he describes just one of the many challenges that he struggles with on a daily basis. “I have a hearing disability and can’t speak, when I go to the markets or to the doctors, people think that I am stupid, this is what is most frustrating for me”, continues Eric.
“Stigma around children living with disabilities is a big problem in our communities”, says Regina Akira, a teacher at a centre that supports children living with disabilities, where Eric has been going since he was 8yrs old. “People don’t understand or know what to do to help their children if they have disabilities; we hope that once the Government considers the needs of disabled children in their decisions, people will understand the issues better”.
It was because of Regina’s support that Eric was able to come to terms with his own disability and realise that he too could go to school, learn and fulfil his potential. “Regina encouraged us to work hard and she said that it would be easy for us to learn too and that we are not any different”, continues Eric
Eric’s disability was something his father found extremely difficult to deal with. “My father is getting better at learning sign, but he did not speak with me when I was younger. He was upset because I was deaf, we are poor and he was worried I would not be able to get a job.”
Providing a fair chance and fair employment opportunities for people with disabilities is a key concern for Eric and something that he raised with the Prime Minister during the children’s summit. “I would like to go to university one day; I hope to become a teacher and help others with disabilities to learn, it is my wish that people living with disabilities can get jobs and do what they desire, our disabilities should not stop us.”
At the Summit, Eric also urged the government to provide more resources and teachers for schools attended by children with disabilities, and to address issues such as transport to school for children with physical disabilities. “Some of my friends that come to the centre do not go to school because there is no way for them to get there”.
The Government of Rwanda is committed to ensuring that the needs of children living with disabilities are included in the 2012 National Development Plan which focuses on achieving growth through equity.
Eric is hopeful that the Government will consider the issues he raised on behalf of the Children’s Summit and is confident that the agenda for children living with disabilities will be advanced in Rwanda. “This is the first time that children with disabilities have been included in the summit, that is a great progress but I hope that we see our recommendations in action”, continues Eric.
For now, Eric is proud that the Government of Rwanda has listened to his concerns, “This has made me and so many children in this country living with disabilities feel that we too can become the leaders of tomorrow.”