UGANDA: Coronavirus Unmasks Pandemic of Inequality over Women with Disability

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Rose Akot, a disabled woman seated at Omoro District Headquarters with her colleagues

I cried when I saw a colleague being sent away from the government facilitated healthcare facility when she turned up with dirt all over her clothes crawling in labour pain. The Nurse said the facility had no disability bed for her examination

Women living with disability in Uganda are facing triple pandemics under the stringent coronavirus lockdown. They are the pandemics of social discrimination, sexual and gender based violence and the Coronavirus pandemic itself.

Coronavirus pandemic arrived in March 2020 to make worse what was already bad enough for many of the women – social inequality and unfair discrimination. For those walking on their palms, keeping safe during the pandemic is forever a tall order.

They are required to wash hands before they enter healthcare facilities on hand washing stands suspended overhead, well beyond their reach and far off from the paved door steps usually devoid of disability ramps.

On the 25th July 2020, Action Aid International, a humanitarian organization operating in Northern Uganda set off for eleven days mission to rescue 400 disabled women in the four districts of West Acholi Sub –Region.Like a joke, they are restricted from entering the facility due to fresh dirt they pick on their palms each time they wash. Without wheelchairs, the tossing cycle ends in frustration.

This is the story of Rose Akot, a resident of Lalogi Sub –County in Omoro district. She has lived with physical disability for more than 30 years. She is now far too familiar with social discrimination.

“I cried when I saw a colleague being sent away from the government facilitated healthcare facility when she turned up with dirt all over her clothes crawling in labour pain. The Nurse said the facility had no disability bed for her examination” she narrates.

Akot says the lady was carried to Gulu Hospital by a sympathizer who could not bear the sight of that discrimination. It was then when she felt for the very first time that her own situation was much better.

Like her friend, Akot just had extra burden piled onto hers in February 2020 after her only sister committed suicide. She left behind Six children in her care. They must now fend for themselves under the Coronavirus lockdown.

“I used to send them out to support the family through engaging in manual economic activities. Some of them fetch water in exchange for food while others lay dig for villagers” she narrates.

And when the demand for menial labour declined under Coronavirus Pandemic, the family fell deeper into poverty. Their food stock tumbled. And life became more difficult. There are more than 30 others with similar economic situation in Lalogi Sub County alone living with different disabilities – visual impairment, physical handicap, deaf and muteness while some were amputated during a brutal civil war which lasted 20 years.

For the mentally challenged, understanding the Coronavirus prevention measures are second priority after finding food. And when things became hard, their spouses vanished from their homes as others contended with daily bouts of sexual and gender based violence. A silent pandemic in the shadow of the global Coronavirus pandemic.

To reach these marginalized community with the message of hope, Actionaid, a non-governmental Organization mobilized food for the disabled. The organization believes that with food, the persons with disability can better understand and adhere to Coronavirus prevention measures.

On the first day of the mission, 20 women were served hot meals and food rations able to last just a week.The relief bag had 10kgs of maize  lour, 5kgs of beans, 5kgs of sugar and 5 liters of cooking oil estimated to last just few days.

Actionaid found them gathered in groups in front of Omoro district headquarters. They were there to ask the district taskforce to remember them in their outreaches.

Outside the district administration block, another group of 20 women living with disability gathered at Acet trading centre – hungry and desperate. They heard of the charity mission through their council representatives who lobbied for the assistance.

Josephine Aol is one of them. She lives with physical disability. For many years, she earned her living from selling boiled cassava to Acet Primary School children. With schools closed for many months, Aol’s saving is all used up.

“I lost the final bit in a burglary incident on my home while I went to work away from home. The suspected thugs made off with USD 51.73 (190,000 shillings) alongside the cereals I had bought for the lockdown” she narrates with tears welling in her eyes. Frail and hopeless; Aol has not eaten a decent meal for three days.

Leaders Speak Out

Carolyn Rose Adong, the representative of persons with disability in Omoro District local government says there are up to 3,000 persons with disability in the district living with various forms of disabilities.

“They suffer acute knowledge gaps in understanding the new disease – how it is spread or prevented. Who can better explain the medical understanding behind wearing of facemask or the frequent hand washing?” she ponders.

Few household where these women live own radio sets – the dominant form of media in this region. Every time a presidential address on Corona is made, the women are the ones left far behind.

In Omoro’s neighboring district of Gulu, there are up to 32,259 persons with disability as of 2019 disability headcount. Majority of the members are female so prone to gender based violence and sexual abuse.

Denis Ocen Lakwonyero, another local government councilor says the Coronavirus Pandemic has exposed the glaring need for wheelchairs among the people living with disability in the former war torn region.

Last year, 40 visually impaired persons who are residents in Gulu City and the neighbouring townships received white canes to assist them navigate their villages. Lakwonyero says they are now pushing for tricycles and motorized wheelchairs to ease their movements.

With Coronavirus in town, food and survival is the in thing. Such mobility budgets remain unfunded in the local government frameworks.

Aciro Teddy Luwar, another Councilorfor persons with disability in Gulu district local government believes that Coronavirus Pandemic has reversed the gains government made in eliminating discrimination against persons with disability. She urges the world to pay attention on the plight of women with disability in order to leave no one behind in the implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

SDG Goal 10 strives to reduce inequality within and among countries by empowering and promoting the social, economic and political inclusion of all, including persons with disabilities. This is closely linked with Goal 11 which advocates for working together to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe and sustainable.

Peter Douglas Okao, the Omoro District Chairman is deeply concerned that meeting the SDG goal on halving the number of the poor around the world will tumble without including women living with disability in meaningful anti-poverty efforts during and after COVID-19.

In Uganda, women living with disability frequently face property grab in which economic resources such as land are violently taken away by relatives. For they are considered less human and less important in society.

David Komakech, a Program Manager at Actionaid International says women living with disability remain a forgotten lot in society. He says eliminating the inequalities around them will require concerted international efforts of inclusion in the battle against the Coronavirus Pandemic.

“At Actionaid, we recognize that women living with disability are struggling to break forth from the vicious poverty trap. And supporting them to participate in the money economy is not just a priority, but a necessity. Unfortunately, the resource envelop is also limiting. We are committed to share the least with them” Komakech stated.

The charity plans to distribute more relief food to persons living with HIV in order to keep them on their antiretroviral treatment. This after government reported that many people were abandoning their treatment citing lack of adequate energy giving food.



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