Being blind and partially deaf is not enough to keep Edna silent. As she speaks candidly with Human Rights Watch about her experience, she rounds her shoulders protectively over her baby.
HRW’s report, “Edna’s Story,” weaves the tale of a woman in Uganda who faces daily challenges that seem insurmountable.
Edna lived in a rural village in Uganda that was attacked by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a feared rebel group in Uganda and neighboring African countries. The rebels burned down her house with 12 people inside. Though Edna survived, her burns left her blind and partially deaf.
There is more. The father of her first child, now six, was killed by the LRA. Her baby’s father abandoned her when she became pregnant, ashamed to be associated with a woman with a disability. Edna learned, during the tenure of her second pregnancy, that she is also HIV positive. When asked how she copes, she replies simply, that her six-year-old leads her to the hospital so she can get her antiretrovirals.
HRW reports that nearly 20 percent of Ugandans have disabilities and acknowledges that this figure is likely higher in areas like the north where years of war have left many more maimed and disabled.
“The government forced people into squalid camps, which cut off their access to health care and led to an increase in disabling diseases like polio. Many people also lost the use of limbs due to landmines or gunshot wounds,” says Shantha Rau Barriga, author of the report.
This Agrarian Society
In an agriculture-based society like Uganda, women with disabilities are labeled “useless.” They can’t fetch water or work in the fields, the assumed proper place for women in a country like Uganda. They don’t go to school. Others fear they will “catch deafness” from the women afflicted with the disability. They are abandoned by their men. They are shunned by the community. No one offers to help. “It’s as if they’re invisible,” says Rau Barriga.
The vulnerability of Uganda’s disabled women also leads to exploitation of their sex. Many women report being sexually assaulted. And more than one-third of the 64 women interviewed for the HRW report said they had been sexually abused, beaten, or raped.
“People view them as weak and stupid, an easy target. Such assaults increase their risk of HIV infection, as does the abandonment by their sexual partners,” says Rau Barriga.
The Voice of the Invisible
The power of people with disabilities in Uganda is growing stronger. The government recently ratified an international treaty on disability rights and is, HRW reports, consulting with people with disabilities on issues they face. After HRW released its report, the UN Population Fund agreed to focus on the issues of women with disabilities. The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) also raised its voice for the plight of Ugandan women with disabilities, bringing an international voice to the issue.
This is an incredibly daunting issue that will likely not get a lot of press. May we all take inspiration from Edna’s courage and resilience. “Despite it all, she had found a way to take care of herself and her family with such grace.” Some with all the riches in the world cannot claim such a victory. And spread the word.