SOMALIA: Disabled children in Somaliland "must come first"
HARGESIA, 17 June 2010 (IRIN) - Children with disabilities in the self-declared republic of Somaliland are a forgotten lot, often not factored into the country's education, livelihood and health policies, child rights activists said on 16 June, during a ceremony marking the Day of the African Child.
"The physical environment [access to buildings such as schools and hospitals], attitudes of people and lack of public awareness and sensitization are the real barriers to the development of these children and not their impairments," Ali Jama Hassan, the Disability Action Network (DAN), the largest NGO working with children with physical and/or psychological disabilities.
This year's theme for the Day of the African Child is "Planning and Budgeting for the Well being of the Child: A Collective Responsibility".
Speaking to IRIN at the DAN offices where activities to mark the day were held, Hassan said despite the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, Somaliland children with disabilities were not considered a priority, especially at the policy-making and funding allocation levels.
"Policies on children with disabilities are not a priority in the country, be it in education, in health or livelihood support," Hassan said. "Some of the change we are looking for the mainstreaming of the needs of children with disabilities in education, healthcare and in livelihood."
Ettie Higgins, the chief of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) field office in Hargesia, told IRIN the situation of children in Somaliland remained critical.
"There are several thousand children living in Somaliland with physical and psychological disabilities - but only very limited facilities are available to cater for their needs," she said. "For example, deaf children come from as far as Mogadishu [Somalia's capital] to attend Hargeisa School for the Deaf, since these facilities are unavailable."
Higgins said the Day of the African Child was a celebration of all children on the African continent. "It is an opportunity for Somali communities, families, parents, local administrations, non-governmental organizations, donors and international organizations to come together and act on their collective responsibility to put the best interests of the child first."
Somalia's infant and maternal mortality rates are amongst the world's highest, with the main causes of death being diarrhoeal diseases, malaria and respiratory infections, Higgins said.
"Access to basic services such as primary education, proper healthcare, and safe drinking water is still a challenge in many areas," she said. "In such an environment, children living with disabilities are often further marginalised by communities in the effort to just sustain lives, and their special needs are not addressed, and they are not given the opportunity to contribute to society."
This sense of responsibility, Higgins said, should be engrained in various planning and budgeting initiatives for the welfare of Somali children, "and this especially should also include those children most marginalised - including orphans and vulnerable children, as well as those living with disabilities."
Regarding discrimination of people with disabilities, Hassan told IRIN Somaliland's constitution denies people with physical or psychological disabilities the right to run for public office, "a clause we have been fighting to have removed from the books".
Hassan said: "We are hopeful that the next government [after 26 June presidential elections] will remove this clause from the constitution."
According to DAN, children with disabilities include those with physical impairments such as wheelchair users; those with psychosocial conditions; those with intellectual impairments or learning disabilities as well as the deaf and the blind.
Accurate data on the number of children with disabilities in Somaliland are lacking but DAN estimates that at least 10 percent of children in the country have some form of disability.
In the context of Somaliland, the numbers of children with disabilities is growing as people who had been refugees in neighbouring countries return home and more Somalis who get displaced by violence and insecurity in south-central Somalia migrate to Somaliland, according to DAN.
"The basic services they need for social and economic inclusion are not yet available.An immediate action is required to mainstream development programmes aimed at them," DAN said.
Hodan Mohammed, 30, mother of two - one of whom is blind and disabled - told IRIN she was attending the Day of the African Child ceremony in the hope that her child will in future be treated as any other so-called normal child.
"DAN has been helping me to train my daughter to sit and stand but I need more support to explore the possibility of my child being able to see," she said. "Unfortunately, I am a widow and my family can barely afford to feed me feed my children let alone foot the bill for specialized treatment outside of Somaliland."