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Fighting Discrimination Against Disability In Somaliland
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26 11 2003

The stigma attached to disability in Somaliland means that disabled children are refused a normal life and even an education. CIIR communications manager Nick Sireau looks at the work being done to stop this cruel discrimination.

The stigma of disability

Polio disabled Jama Ibrahim Awed at the age of three. It paralysed the left side of his body, leaving him with a major limp. His parents, who lived in rural Somaliland, did not know what to do with him.
In the 1970s, when he was still a child, Jama’s mother took him to southern Somalia to live with his uncle so he could attend a Koranic school there. He used walking sticks made by his parents to move around.

When the major drought of 1974-75 hit Somalia, his parents lost all their livestock and had to move to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. Jama moved up to live with them and attended school there.

‘All my childhood I was picked on,’ he says. ‘Children would watch me in the playground and say I was not normal. They would ask me why I was like this. I would answer that it was due to a car accident, or because of God – anything to keep them quiet.’

Discrimination was also strong at home. His father would tell his mother off for caring for him. ‘I was lucky my mother was more civilised than my father,’ Jama says. ‘In most families here, disabled children are ignored by the whole family. If parents have three children and one is disabled, the other two are sent to school and the disabled one is barely clothed and fed and stays indoors.’

Fighting back: The Activist Network of Disabled Persons

Now, though, at the age of 38, Jama is fighting back. He’s a member of the board of directors of the Activist Network of Disabled Persons (ANDP), a non-governmental organisation based in Hargeisa that campaigns for the rights of disabled people.

ANDP was set up in 2002 by a group of disabled people who saw their country’s progress towards democracy and peace as an opportunity to promote their rights. Somaliland had been at war for much of the late 1980s and 1990s, leaving its infrastructure and social system in ruins.

Osman Ahmed Abdi is ANDP’s head. Polio severely disabled both his legs when he was two years old, leaving him to crawl around the floor with his arms. When drought hit the nation, his family moved to Hargeisa and left him at an orphanage there for able-bodied and disabled children. ‘It was the best thing they could do,’ he says today. ‘My parents were nomads. They didn’t know how to look after me.’

He enjoyed his childhood at the orphanage. Most of the children cared for him and played with him. During football matches, he would act as goal keeper. ‘I was rather good,’ he says with a smile. His friends would carry him to the river and they’d all swim together.

Until one day, the orphanage decided to separate the disabled children from the others. ‘Suddenly, we had no help from our able-bodied friends. We could not get around. We could do nothing.’

The injustice of the situation convinced him that he had to take action. He went down to Mogadishu to work with an organisation for the disabled, which provided the experience for setting up ANDP years later.

Success for the ANDP

ANDP’s record of success is impressive. It runs 12 adult literacy centres in three regions, helping 150 people with disabilities. It supports a school for the deaf – one of only two in Somaliland. It has a women’s literacy and skills training centre for 30 women. It played a key role in organising the International Day for the Disabled on 3 December 2002 in Somaliland. It also has three sports teams for disabled people and was awarded a prize for its work during the Civil Society Symposium in Hargeisa in March 2003.

Since ANDP started campaigning, the situation of disabled people has progressed noticeably, says Deborah Ossiya, a development worker with International Cooperation for Development, the skill-share programme of the Catholic Institute for International Relations. ‘The disabled community doesn’t get much say in Somaliland, especially women. But ANDP are changing this.’

A key area of their work has been to encourage the government, local non-governmental organisations and international development agencies to stop discriminating, Ossiya says. ‘Some agencies or government departments used to specify on their job vacancies that they did not want disabled people to apply. Now they do that much less. It takes time to change the way people think. But this is a good start.’


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