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Eliminating Stigma and Extending Support for those with Disabilities and Special Needs

Recently, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) highlighted an exciting skills development program being implemented in Eritrea. The program, which specifically targets youths, was scaled-up from a pilot project that was conducted from 2007 to 2011. It aims to enhance the capacity of various vocational training institutions and equip Eritrean youth with tangible work skills.

To date, numerous trainees, both male and female, from Keren and the surrounding Anseba region have benefited from training in an array of sectors, including graphics, videography, metalwork, woodwork, pottery, and electricity installation, amongst others.

As I described within the last issue of Eritrea Profile, the project is not only a poignant reflection of important ongoing collaborative initiatives between the Eritrean government, international development partners (e.g. the UNDP and Norway), and civil society groups and organizations, it also represents a positive step by the country in working towards general economic growth and broad developmental outcomes. Additionally, however, the project is also significant for the support it extends to youth with disabilities and special needs.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations (UN) report that there are between 100 and 200 million children worldwide with disabilities, while the World Health Organization (WHO) and World Bank (WB) estimate that approximately 1 billion people around the world live with a disability. The challenges faced by individuals with special needs or disabilities are immense, especially in terms of stigma, discrimination, and exclusion.

Prejudices, stigma, and discrimination – prevalent both around the world and within Eritrea – often restrict those with disabilities from participating in society on an equal basis with others. For example, individuals with disabilities and special needs are frequently denied their rights to education or employment, to live independently or move freely, to vote or participate politically in society, to engage in sports or cultural activities, to enjoy social protection or access justice, to choose medical treatment, and to enter into legal commitments such as buying or selling property.

Problematically, youths with disabilities are at a greater risk of dying, not only because of life threatening medical conditions, but due to a lack of access to healthcare (e.g. through extra costs or inadequate facilities) and also since within many cultures they are severely neglected or marginalized. Moreover, prejudices, stigma, and discrimination mean that many youths with disabilities are likely to be out of school and thus highly vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, crime, and unemployment.

In this context, Eritrea’s technical and vocational programs that serve youth with special needs are essential in promoting the inclusion of all people within society and protecting fundamental human rights. However, it is imperative that the country build upon these initiatives in order to further and more effectively support those with disabilities and special needs.

One significant, constructive step that Eritrea can take is to ratify (accede to) the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol (A/RES/61/106), adopted on 13 December 2006 and opened for signature on 30 March 2007. Importantly, this will reflect firm political commitment towards ensuring that all Eritreans, regardless of whether they are disabled, can fully realize their rights without discrimination. However, it is crucial that ratification is translated into adequate and appropriate measures for implementation and enforcement, lest it become a hollow gesture.

Additionally, it is necessary to change harmful societal attitudes and behaviors towards those with special needs and disabilities. Globally, individuals with disabilities are often shackled by restrictive, narrow, labels which only serve to patronize or pigeon-hole them as limited, objects of pity or charity, or undesirable others. Rather than view and categorize them within these narrow frames, individuals with special needs or disabilities should be first seen as human beings. Seeing and perceiving them as human beings leads to viewing them as individuals to whom human rights and dignity are to be afforded.

Thus, a reformulation of the ways individuals with disability are perceived can be an influential and effective step in supporting and accepting them as empowered, efficacious, and active members of society.

Accordingly, the Eritrean government and relevant stakeholders can develop (or expand) public awareness and education campaigns, support local advocacy or community groups, and encourage social mobilization to help reduce and eliminate social stigma and discrimination. Most likely, the process of change will require patience and a broad, sustained, and committed effort since prejudice, stigma, and negative attitudes towards the disabled are often deeply entrenched within societies.

Another area of possible focus is the education sector; while the Eritrean government commendably extends free education (across all levels) to every citizen, individuals with special educational needs require further support, including a disability-friendly environment and inclusive curricula, specially-trained teachers, and learning aids, amongst other measures. Significantly, a large body of research illustrates that inclusive education can lead to better learning outcomes for all youth, not only those with disabilities. For example, inclusive education promotes tolerance, enables social cohesion (since it fosters a cohesive social culture), and promotes equal participation within society. Furthermore, it is more cost-effective than separate schooling or institutionalization (the latter of which poses severe consequences and implications), and can encourage inclusive labor markets which lead to a more efficient social economy.

Last, the international community, development partners (e.g. the UNDP), the Eritrean government, and civil society groups and organizations can work together through the sharing of good practices and the development of tangible, sustainable projects. As a simple example, existing facilities and services can be renovated or upgraded to ensure that people with disabilities or special needs do not encounter barriers (e.g. ramped entrances, handrails, accessible sanitation, safe walkways [particularly within rural areas], and making captions or sign-language interpreters available for electronic media).

Youth with Special Needs Find Renewed Hope in Vocational Training
UNDP and featured on www.

Tsega Mekonen is 22 years and the chairperson for the Association of the Deaf in Anseba Region. She is one of the beneficiaries of the pottery training, which is facilitated by the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS).

The training takes six months and by the time of interviewing her for this story, she had already been at the training center for five months and one week. Out of the 21 trainees in the pottery class 10 are deaf. Her group is the first to be trained in pottery craft in Eritrea. According to NUEYS, there is demand for clay products in Keren, the capital of Anseba region and Asmara,Eritrea’s capital.

Tsega is excited with her  newly acquired skills. “As the chairperson of the deaf association, I have the responsibility for the other members. There are many young people who have no jobs. I see this as an opportunity to learn a new skill, so I bring the members of our organization here so that they can be empowered,” she said.

The group already has a collection of water pots, jars, jugs, flower vases and flower pots on display. They source clay from a nearby river and have two machines to mould the clay. “After training, we will teach others. I am good in craft and intend to use this experience through our association,” she said. She added that the association plans to start pottery training classes so than more members benefit from the initiative.

Currently, the center has only two moulding machines. According to Kidane, the trainer at the center, the trainees could make more progress if they had more machines. This is the first pottery class and they are applying the lessons learned to boost the capacity of the center. The project is addressing the issue by purchasing adequate training equipment to improve the capacity of the training centers.

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