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South Africa

A young South African woman's path to making social change

Benedictor Mokoena, 18, is a B.Sc. student at the Univerity of Pretoria and has been involved in a UNICEF initiative that nurtures her voice and leadership skills. She aspires to effect real social change for people living with disabilities.  Watch in RealPlayer


By Emma de Villiers

Like all children, those with disabilities have many abilities, but are often excluded from society by discrimination and lack of support, leaving them among the most invisible and vulnerable children in the world.

On 30 May, UNICEF launched its flagship report The State of the World’s Children 2013: Children with Disabilities. The report brings global attention to the urgent needs of a largely invisible population.

According to a young South African 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.”

PRETORIA, South Africa, 4 June 2013 – 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. Her fingers move quickly to tie the shoelaces of the trendy trainers she will wear to class today.

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

“It was a Monday, and I was going to school,” recalls 18-year-old Benedictor. “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 she would 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 disabilities.

© UNICEF South Africa/2013/Marinovich
Benedictor goes for coffee on campus with good friend and fellow student Suzan-Leigh Tolley. The 18-year-old lost the use of her legs in 2007.

More vulnerable

There is no clear indication as to exactly how many children in South Africa have disabilities. One 2010 survey found that 6.3 per cent of South Africans over the age of 5 were classified as ‘disabled’.

As outlined in The State of the World’s Children 2013: Children with Disabilities, these children are more vulnerable.

Children with certain disabilities are also prone to particular types of abuse. One study carried out in South Africa over an eight-year period showed that there was a difference in the prevalence of sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect among children with disabilities.

Effecting social change

During her Grade 11 year, Benedictor became involved with the Girls and Boys Education Movement – an initiative of UNICEF encouraging learners to become active social change-makers in their communities.

‘GEM/BEM’ club members meet weekly at their respective schools to discuss challenges faced by their community, and brainstorm about ways to address these challenges.

“Before joining GEM/BEM, I was shy and withdrawn,” remembers Benedictor, “but I soon realized 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. She was asked to represent the Deputy Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities at the Conference of the Parties (COP) 17 serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol to present a copy of a report capturing the voices of children on the issue of climate change.

“With a will”

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 it happen.

“There’s something I always say to people who don’t understand what it means to be in my position,” she says. “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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