New York/Addis Ababa — A 17-year-old, who lost his sight at the age of ten due to river blindness, speaks for many of Africa's children with disabilities when he says: "I thought it was the end of my world, but with education, I am hopeful that I will be useful in society and not be a beggar in the streets." Bai Kamara is enrolled at the UNICEF-supported Educational Centre for the Blind and Visually Impaired in the capital Freetown where work is underway to put the Sierra Leone Child Rights Act into Braille.
Millions of children in Africa live with some sort of disability. On the Day of the African Child 2012, UNICEF calls on families, communities and governments throughout the continent to protect children with disabilities from discrimination, violence and neglect, and to provide them with access to all the services they need to grow up healthy and live up to their potential.
"Children living with disabilities continue to be the most excluded among all groups of children in Africa. Only a small portion of them are in school, and far fewer receive the adequate inclusive education they need," said the Chief of UNICEF's Disability Unit, Rosangela Berman Bieler.
Country-specific information suggests that between 5 and 10 per cent of all children in Africa grow up with disabilities. The leading causes of disability - in addition to genetic disorders and complications during birth -- include poliomyelitis, measles, meningitis and cerebral malaria, as well as inadequate prenatal and neonatal health care services and inadequate diet leading to stunting.
So far, 25 out of 55 African countries have not yet ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that stipulates that children with disabilities should be protected against all forms of discrimination, and that they should have access to education, health services and protection from violence. By becoming a signature state, countries commit themselves to promote equal opportunities for people with disabilities.
School enrolment among children with disabilities is much lower in most countries than among other children. A 2011 UNICEF study undertaken in Madagascar found that on average only 11 per cent of children with disabilities attended primary school, with school attendance among girls much lower. Almost all children interviewed reported that they were ridiculed by other children. Because of such bullying, as well as a lack of inclusive practices, children with disabilities are more likely to drop out of school than their peers without disability. Their learning achievements are often worse than those of other children, because schools are not designed to cater for them and teachers are often not adequately trained.
Children with albinism are particularly at risk of being excluded and even attacked. Tanzania, the country with one of the largest populations of persons with albinism in the world, assembled children and adults with albinism in special protection centres to protect them from violence and even murder, fuelled by the belief that their body parts may give rise to good luck and fortune.
"I encourage the adoption of legislative measures to improve the socio-economic wellbeing of children living with disabilities and the implementation of protective and rehabilitative programmes," said Agnes Kabore Ouattara, Chairperson of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.
A number of countries in Africa introduced specific legislation, national policies or strategies to respond to the needs of children with disabilities. When it comes to implementing inclusive programmes and allocating adequate resources, however, many countries lag behind although there are examples of activities aimed at helping disabled children achieve their potential.
Rwanda is one of the countries that invested significantly in specialized education for children with disabilities. The number of children benefiting from special education increased from 632 in 2000 to around 17,000 in 2010. In Ghana, some 6,900 students went to special schools in 2009/2010. In Guinea, the NGO Nimba Centre -- with support from UNICEF - organizes a three year training course for almost 90 children in small trades, ballet, knitting, shoe-repair, literacy and sewing. The Ministry of Education in Lesotho has established a Special Education Unit which supports the integration of learners with special educational needs into mainstream schools and organizes related training for teachers.
UNICEF is supporting the development of national frameworks for inclusive education in a number of African countries, which includes the training of teachers and the development of adequate learning materials and facilities. Further to this, UNICEF supports concrete interventions for children with disabilities, for instance through the distribution of text books in Braille for children with visual impairment in Zimbabwe.
Around the Day of the African Child, UNICEF offices throughout Africa, including in Benin, Guinea, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe are supporting activities and public events to raise awareness about the situation of children with disabilities.