19 December 2012

Tanzania: Promoting the Rights of People With Mental Disabilities

Photo: Talea Miller/Flickr
Goverment urged to protect rights of the disabled.

ZANZIBAR is one of many developing countries where people with mental disabilities still face violation of their rights. Perhaps the government has not been keen enough at ensuring those rights are guaranteed. But the media, the civil society and members of the general public also have a blame to shoulder.

Activists from the Zanzibar Association for People with Development Disabilities (ZAPDD) mention isolation, neglect, physical assault and psychological intimidation as some of the acts of abuse that these people get from some members of the public.

ZAPDD officials have appealed for immediate change of attitude and improvement of relevant facilities at homes, streets, and mental hospitals. At a workshop which discussed the need for journalists to extensively cover issues of people with mental disabilities in the isles, different speakers noted with concern the increasing disturbing stories about violation of the rights of the disabled people here.

The general message was on the need to change people's perception on people with mental disabilities maintaining that abusing the rights of the disabled, deliberately or accidentally violates religious teachings and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

The training was part of the association's efforts to promote the rights of the disabled in the isles and enhance the role of the media for the same. The organization was formed in 1999 with the objective of promoting the rights of the people with disabilities.

Some members of the society including parents believe that mental illness is evil and that the afflicted are possessed by bad spirits. However, health experts explain mental disability as incomplete development of mental capacities, and that the illness can be profound, severe, moderate, or mild. According to medics causes of mental disorders are generally complex, and vary from one disorder to another.

Scientists says Genetics, early development, trauma, drugs, disease or injury, neural/ psychological mechanisms, life experiences, society and culture can all contribute to the development or progression of mental disorders.

Mr Ali Uki, a Law lecturer at the Zanzibar University urged reporters to drum for the implementation of policies, plans, laws, and services that promote the rights of people with disabilities. Mr Uki said that many international conventions, national and regional laws and policies promote the rights of the people with disabilities, but the problem has been lack of implementation.

"Media can help safeguard the rights of these people by promoting strict enforcement of the laws and conventions. Mental health policies and laws can be an effective way of preventing human rights violations and discrimination and promoting the autonomy and liberty of people with mental disabilities," he said.

He said many countries including Tanzania have adopted appropriate mental health policies, and laws but their implementation is still questionable. These people, he said also needed to be empowered to be able to make choices about their lives, provided with legal protections, and ensure their full integration and participation into the community.

While it is estimated that about 450 million people around the world have mental, neurological or behavioural problems, yet the majority of them go without access to appropriate mental health treatment and care, with at least 30 per cent of the countries lacking even a specified budget for mental health.

It is also estimated that of the few countries that have budgets for the mental health, they spend less than one per cent of their total health budget on mental health, and lack adequate services. About 80 per cent of persons with mental health conditions live in low and middle income countries.

Mr Mohammed Abdallah, a psychiatric nurse in Zanzibar says that the estimated 2,500 people with mental disabilities depend on services provided by only two local psychiatrics and one foreigner. "Critical shortage of psychiatrics remains a big challenge.

Many people who happen to join medical schools avoid studying psychiatry. I think the media can help motivate students to study mental health so that we can help the vulnerable group," he said. He adds that more is needed to improve the psychiatry hospitals in Zanzibar town, and Chakechake in Pemba, and that plans are underway to open a new psychiatry centre in Wete, Pemba.

Mr Mohammed also says "the government needs to increase investment in mental health, make sure wage package is attractive, workforce needs to be developed, ensuring that health and mental health professionals receive sufficient training on mental health at all levels of care."

Mr Juma Salum Ali says that most people in the society including parents cannot differentiate between mentally disabled people and the mental ill people, therefore all people living in mental health facilities are often exposed to inhuman and degrading treatment.

"People with mental disabilities are different from mentally ill people. The majority of people with mental disabilities are born with the impairment or get before the age of 18 years of age, while mentally ill people suffer at the age of adulthood," Juma Said.

Juma said that due to ignorance and carelessness, people with mental disabilities are often assumed to lack the capacity to make health care decisions in their own interest. Many are inappropriately admitted to mental health facilities against their will and are treated without their consent.

He said that free and informed consent should form the basis of treatment and rehabilitation for most people with mental disabilities, and that people should be consulted and involved in decisions related to their treatment and care.

Mr Khatib Abdallah Omar of ZAPDD says that change of attitude and raising awareness are very important should the society and government need to see that people with mental disabilities live in favourable environment.

"The myths and misconceptions surrounding mental disability hamper treatment, and people with mental disabilities and their families fail to seek the care and support that they require for fear of being stigmatized," he said.

Khatib said that in most countries people with mental disabilities face discrimination in the areas of employment, health, education, housing, education. Many are denied basic human rights such as the right to vote, to marry and have children.

"Combating stigma and discrimination is not the sole responsibility of the government, but requires a multisectoral approach, involving education, media, and justice sectors among others," said Dr Omar Dadi Shajak, Principal Secretary- First Vice President Office.

Dr Shajak said that as the government struggles to fight stigma and discrimination, media and other stakeholders should unify their efforts in educating and changing public attitudes towards mental illness and advocating for the human rights of people with mental disabilities.

The Zanzibar First Vice President Office is responsible for people with disabilities, HIV/AIDS, and Environment. "Our efforts include promoting Inclusive education. We have about 86 schools with inclusive education classes.

I think there have been noticeable achievements to children with mental disabilities. Interacting and mixing is vital for children," said Dr Shajak as he asked reporters to write positively about inclusive education.

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