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South Africa, 29 May 2013: Young leader inspires others towards enablement, despite her own disability

© UNICEF South Africa/2013/Marinovich
Benedictor Mokoena lost the use of her legs in 2007 when she was involved in a car accident on her way to school. She is currently a B.Sc. student at the Univerity of Pretoria. Good friend and fellow student Suzan-leigh joins her for coffee on campus.

By Emma de Villiers

PRETORIA, South Africa, 29 May 2013 - UNICEF’s flagship report, ‘The State of the World’s Children 2013: Children Living with Disabilities’, will launch on 30 May, focusing attention on children living with disabilities. According to the report, an estimated one out of every twenty children 14 years or younger live with a moderate or severe disability of some kind. In South Africa, disabled children are particularly vulnerable.

The young woman takes one final look in the mirror before she leaves for class. Her braids are neatly swept back into a bun and she is wearing a bright red blazer to protect her slender frame against the chilly weather outside. Her fingers move quickly to tie the shoelaces of the trendy sneakers.

But the soles of Benedictor Mokoena’s (18) shoes will not touch the ground today. While the sound students’ footsteps fill the hallway, the whirring wheels of Benedictor’s wheelchair propel her forward. The last time Benedictor used her legs, was five years ago before getting on the red pick-up truck that took her to school.

“It was a Monday and I was going to school,” she recalls the day that changed her life forever. “I was sitting on the back of the truck. It got a puncture and it started rolling and every time it rolled my back hit the ground. So this broke my back.”

Benedictor would never walk again, but this brave young woman was determined to finish her school career at the mainstream school she attended before the accident. Now a first year student at university, she is more determined than ever to challenge misconceptions regarding children living with disability.

VIDEO: Former GEM/BEM members enables others despite her own disability.

Disabled children in South Africa more vulnerable

There is no clear indication as to exactly how many children in South Africa are disabled. Results from the 2011 General Household Survey indicate indicate that 5,2 per cent of the population over the age of four years is living with some kind of disability What is evident, however, is that children with disabilities are less likely to have access to adequate housing, water and sanitation.

These children are also more vulnerable. Children with certain disabilities are prone to particular types of abuse. Studies have shown that mentally and physically disabled children are at an increased risk of sexual abuse while those with learning disabilities are especially vulnerable to neglect.

Rising to the challenges brought on by not being fully able-bodied

Bendedictor is a prime example of someone living with a disability defying the odds, despite challenges she encountered as a disabled learner attending a mainstream school. It was during her Grade 11 year that she became involved with the Girls and Boys Education Movement – an initiative by UNICEF encouraging learners to become active social change makers in their community.

The so-called GEM/BEM club members meet weekly at their respective schools to discuss challenges faced by their community, and brainstorm around ways to address these challenges.

“Before joining GEM/BEM I was shy and withdrawn,” remembers Benedictor, “but I soon realised that my fellow GEM/BEM club members were not judging me. They encouraged me to be myself. That’s how I found my voice and the courage to inspire others with my story.”

Benedictor’s leadership qualities soon started blossoming. To such a degree that she was asked to represent Deputy Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities at COP17 to present a copy of a report capturing the voices of children on the issue of climate change.

Raising her voice to contribute to change

Benedictor strives to be an even greater voice on behalf of other people living with disabilities. She says the experiences she had while being a GEM/BEM member shaped her character for what she hopes will be a life dedicated to making a change. And she has the motivation to make this happen.

“There’s something I always say to people who don’t understand what it means to be in my position,” says the brave young woman. “A man on a wheelchair with a will can do so much more than a healthy man with two healthy feet without a will.”



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