KIKWIT, DR Congo, (IPS) – The outlook for people living with disabilities in the Democratic Republic of Congo remains bleak, despite a variety of efforts to improve their lot and bring them in from the margins of society. “There are roughly 9.1 million people with disabilities in Congo, 11 percent of the total population of 60 million,” said Patrick Pindu, coordinator of the National Federation of Associations of People Living with a Disability in Congo (FENAPHACO). Pindu, who was speaking on the occasion of the first “Day of Sharing and Solidarity”, organised in Kikwit, in southwestern DRC in February, said, “Amongst people with disabilities, 90 percent are illiterate, 93 percent are jobless and 96 percent live in an unhealthy and inhumane environment.”
Godefroid Kiyaka gets around the N’djili neighbourhood of the capital, Kinshasa, on his hands and knees because of the extreme deformity of his legs.
“I don’t have a wheelchair to go longer distances,” he told IPS. “Many people turn away from me when I ask them for donations.”
In Kikwit, 22-year-old Alphonse Mumbaka relies on crutches for limited mobility. His father died when he was young, and left to his own devices, Mumbaka never went to school or learned to read. “No one educated me.”
Jolie Apelo is one of around 350 members of the Association des handicapés et personnes invalides de Kikwit – the Kikwit Association of Disabled Persons. “As you see me here, I don’t eat properly due to a lack of financial resources. I’m unable to buy clothes so I can present myself like a human being worthy of the name, even if I am a member of an association.”
Apelo’s association is one of 226 that are part of FENAPHACO, an umbrella group working for the defence, promotion and protection of the rights of the disabled.
FENAPHACO coordinator Pindu laments the fact that the DRC is yet to ratify the 1993 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, though the country’s 2006 constitution offers at least paper guarantees.
“Both the elderly and people with disabilities have the right to specific protections with regards to their physical, intellectual and moral needs,” says article 49 of the constitution.
“The government has a duty to promote the presence of people with disabilities in the heart of national, provincial and local institutions.”
There are several initiatives – both public and private – to try to address the challenges faced by this community.
“We set up the National Training Institute for People with Disabilities more than three years ago, where they can learn appropriate technology for the production of soap, perfume, improved bread and so on. This will help them to care for themselves,” said Jean Etienne Makila, the institute’s director general, who is himself disabled.
“In Bas-Congo Province (in the west of the country), the provincial government has, for the first time, released two million Congolese francs (around 2,180 dollars) to create micro-credit facilities dedicated to associations of people with disabilities,” he said.
“If I couldn’t fend for myself selling the bread I make at the market, I wouldn’t be able to provide food for my children,” Madeleine Murakupa, a disabled mother of two, told IPS. “It’s rare to find people with disabilities who are in business.”
According to Makila, there is also a “Women, Families and Children Living with Disabilities Unit” in Kinshasa, which provides training and support for women and young girls to strengthen their self- esteem and livelihood prospects.
The Catholic church also runs several projects. Five years ago, the Diocese of Kikwit set up two schools for the disabled. One, called “Bo ta mona” – meaning, “they will see” in the local language, Kikongo – teaches blind people to read and write Braille. The other, “Bo ta tuba” – “they will speak” – is a school for people with hearing or speech disabilities.
But observers feel that despite these efforts, the situation for people with disabilities remains very worrying given their large numbers across the country.
“It’s not acceptable that the government still doesn’t get involved in resolving the problems facing the disabled. These people must enjoy their full rights like everyone,” said Cyrile Mupasa, from the League for the Defence of the Rights of Children and Students in the Central Africa zone.
Kaseya Kibishi, secretary general for the Ministry for Social Affairs, said the newly-elected parliament will ratify the U.N. convention. The ministry, he added, “already supports many associations of people with disabilities in Kinshasa and in several provinces,” although he declined to give further details.
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