Iraq

Iraq: "I want to be heard"

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by Dan Sadowsky

As Iraqis take up the difficult work of drafting a permanent constitution, Mercy Corps is helping people with disabilities ensure that their rights are protected in the country's new legal framework.

Mercy Corps, in collaboration with local partners throughout south-central Iraq, has launched a public-awareness campaign to persuade the public and the politicians to enshrine the social, economic and political rights of people with disabilities in the country's governing document. Specifically, the agency is helping local disability groups distribute posters, contact the media and hold open meetings to mobilize support for their cause.

The centerpiece of the campaign is a widely distributed poster that depicts a woman in a wheelchair looking up a flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs is the word "Constitution." Below the wheelchair, it reads, "I want my voice to be heard." Two other phrases on the poster refer to the disability community's desire to help build a new Iraq.

Mercy Corps has been empowering disabled Iraqis to participate fully in post-Saddam Iraq since May 2003. In a little over two years, the agency has distributed nearly 2,000 wheelchairs, made more than 50 building entrances wheelchair-accessible, repaired and funded schools for the blind, deaf and mentally challenged, and built specially equipped Internet centers run for and by people with disabilities.

All along, the organization has been building the capacity of local disability associations to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities throughout the region. It's the best way to ensure long-lasting and sustainable change. "We have the beginnings of a movement here," says David Holdridge, Mercy Corps' country director for Iraq. "And the people with disabilities are driving it."

Iraq's new constitution is currently being drafted by a 71-person committee, which hopes to finish a draft by August 15. Iraqi officials are encouraging public comment on the historic document. According to news reports, they have set up an e-mail address and stations in public buildings for people to register their opinion and ask questions. Once it's done, the draft will be approved by Iraq's transitional government before voters decide its ultimate fate in a fall referendum.

The Iraqi people aren't used to determining their own destiny. But Mercy Corps is helping them find and exercise their collective voice. In more than 175 communities across south central Iraq, the agency has helped citizen groups organize their own cultural activities like sports tournaments and art contests, and take the lead in rebuilding libraries, museums and other public buildings.

Together with our work to raise the voices of people with disabilities, these programs represent Mercy Corps' desire to create a participatory culture where everyone has a say - and a stake - in the country's future.

Dan Sadowsky is a writer for Mercy Corps.