By Anjan Sundaram
UNICEF’s equity-based approach to achieving the Millennium Development Goals aims to reach the poorest and most vulnerable children and families with cost-effective interventions for sustainable progress. Here is one in a series of stories making the case for equity.
KIGALI, Rwanda, 17 January 2012 – Five years ago, students with disabilities at Murama, a child-friendly school in Rwanda’s southern Bugasera District, felt isolated from their classmates, unable to participate in even a simple game of hide-and-seek or football. Today, thanks to a better understanding of their special needs, this has changed.
Today students play ‘sit-ball,’ a version of volleyball in which the players sit so that all students can appreciate the difficulties faced by people unable to run or walk.
”I have a problem with my foot,” explained Josué Niyilema, 13, a student at Murama. “Before I could never play sports because the boys always made fun of me, limping, but with ‘sit ball’ everyone is like me and can understand what I go through.”
A strong start
A recent national census on those living with disabilities found that, despite improvements in national legislation, people and especially children living with disabilities continue to face discrimination and stigma. They are often treated as outcasts, particularly if their disabilities are severe.
UNICEF is collaborating with the Ministry of Education and partners to change these perceptions, particularly in schools, by training teachers to be sensitive to and better able to cater to the special needs of children with disabilities.
“Ever since we received training on how to cater to children like Josué, I think we have become a better school. I don’t think we are still prepared to cater to all the different disabilities we see … but at least this is a beginning,” said teacher Jean-Damas Niyoyiboka.
“We can only do what is possible with what we have. That is why we have put in place peer and community mentoring initiatives to bring slow and fast learners together, and at least sensitize other students on the importance of inclusion,” he added.
A model of inclusive education
Inclusion is a key element of a child-friendly school – a model of quality education adopted by Rwanda’s government, with the support of UNICEF. The government is working to make all schools child-friendly, places where children learn in healthy, welcoming, inclusive and empowering environments.
Murama is one of the few schools in the country to have a special needs education coordinator to care for the special requirements of students with hearing or speaking difficulties. The school district has also waived lunch and supply expenses for children living with disabilities as an incentive to keep them in school.
But there are still many challenges ahead.
“There is much work to be done for children with disabilities,” said UNICEF Education Policy Specialist Hugh Delaney. “It will take a change in attitudes, additional capacity and nationwide institutional support to ensure that students who live with disabilities have the care and support that they require.”
Equal access to education is essential to UNICEF’s equity approach to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, a push to ensure that all children – regardless of gender, race, religion, disability, income or geographic location – are able survive, develop and reach their fullest potential.
“I know the Government of Rwanda is committed to ensuring that schools are inclusive places of learning,” continued Mr. Delaney, “and I know that we at UNICEF will do whatever we can to support a reform process so that all the children of Rwanda, no matter what disability they may have, have equal access and special attention to succeed."