As If We Weren't Human Discrimination and Violence against Women with Disabilities in Northern Uganda


After 20 years of displacement and war, the people of northern Uganda are leaving camps set up for internally displaced people and building new lives. The challenges are daunting for all displaced people trying to return to their original homes, settle more permanently in the camps, or relocate to new villages and towns and start fresh. Yet during this period of upheaval, government plans are failing to take into account the needs of women who acquired their disabilities due to the war or who already had disabilities before the war and may have disproportionately suffered the impact of conflict. According to available data, approximately 20 percent of Ugandans have disabilities.3 In northern Uganda, where the rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army have waged war on the government for over two decades, the numbers are difficult to tally but very likely even higher. There is a lack of data on the number of women with disabilities across the country.

During the fighting, many women lost the use of limbs due to landmines or gunshot wounds, were mutilated by rebels, sustained injuries in fires, or were never vaccinated for disabling illnesses such as polio. Now, women with disabilities-physical, sensory, mental and intellectual-face an even more complex and grueling process of return and relocation than their neighbors.4 They are often subject to social stigma and sexual violence and denied access to justice. They have specific needs for reproductive and maternal health care that are rarely met.5 The conflict and the movement of people have eroded the community networks that might have bolstered them in the past. Frequently abandoned, women with disabilities now face isolation and abuse as the country begins to move forward without them.

Women with disabilities who wish to leave the camps and go home are often not physically able. Many lost family members or were abandoned by them during the conflict, and cannot undertake a move alone. Others know that they would not be able to build themselves a house without help. In many return destinations, there are no sources of clean water and no services like police or health clinics, which is especially punishing for women with disabilities. Cultural expectations that persons with disabilities, especially women, cannot live independently make it especially challenging for them to leave the camps and access social services on their own.

Discriminatory attitudes remain a major barrier to the full inclusion of women with disabilities in efforts to rebuild a functioning society, and the government has done virtually nothing to combat these attitudes. Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in northern Uganda point out that prior to the war, relatives and community members customarily supported persons with disabilities. However, the protracted displacement has eroded these community support networks. Now, women with disabilities are too often excluded from community meetings and rarely take any part in decision-making on important issues such as the return process or public health. Under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, three treaties that Uganda has ratified, the government has an obligation to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination by any party, including by private individuals.

Over one-third of the 64 women and girls with disabilities interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that they had experienced some form of sexual and gender-based violence, including rape.6 Women with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence because of social exclusion, limited mobility, lack of support structures, communication barriers, and social perceptions that they are weak, stupid, or asexual. Often, women with disabilities find themselves trapped in abusive relationships because they are financially and socially dependent on their partners and families for survival. Human Rights Watch knows of no government efforts to proactively protect women with disabilities from sexual and gender-based violence in northern Uganda, or to dispel perceptions about women with disabilities that increase their vulnerability.


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