13 January 2013

Rwanda: Disability Often Still Carries a Stigma

While major efforts have been made to create equality among all Rwandans, many people with disabilities still find life a challenge, not the least because of society's reaction to them.

It cannot get worse, though, than when parents themselves discriminate against their own disabled children. "In some families disabled children are still perceived as a disgrace," says Esperance Mukamabano, a 60-year-old mother of two.

She remembers the case of a paraplegic girl in her neighborhoods when she was young herself. "We all used to mistreat her and no one in our village wanted to be seen with her," Mukamabano admits shamefully. "Even her family used to force her to hide especially whenever they had visitors."

She adds that while nowadays such issues are less pronounced, they still exist especially in the countryside.

Sifa Ntakirutimana (26) is a double-leg amputee who lives in a foster family at Kagugu, Gasabo district. She lost her legs when she stepped on a landmine in the 1994 against Genocide against the Tutsis. It was a double tragedy for her because she also lost both of her parents. Since then she has been struggling to survive, not the least because of the stigma she has to live with since she became disabled. "When I lost my legs, everyone alienated me," says Ntakirutimana, who has never been either to school or vocational training.

She has been hosted by several families across Kigali, but most mistreated her. "In 2003, while living with a family in Gisozi, the husband raped me - I now have a nine-year-old girl."

That of course only makes life harder. "The baby was not a source of joy as it is for most women; she was a burden, as I knew she was an extra stomach to feed, while I didn't even have enough for myself!"

Later that year, Sifa was received by a family in Nyamirambo, yet the scenario repeated itself, with the man always demanding sexual favors. Due to the pestering, she decided to relocate to Kanombe where she later had issues with the wife and moved to Kagugu-Gasabo district, where she resides now in another foster family.

While at least they treat her well, her hosts wouldn't accept her daughter. "It hurts me knowing that my daughter is going through a tough childhood like I did because where she lives, she is abused and there is nothing I can do to help her!" she says tearfully. "When I find enough money I will rent my own house. I'm tired of all this."

'I am not your brother'

To Egidia Nirere, a 22-year-old from Rubona, Ngoma district, Sifa's experience is familiar. Today a senior-five student at Gatagara high school, she too lost both her legs in early 2000, due to poison. After that, some members of her family began to disown her. "My father tells me every time we meet that he doesn't want to see me because I can't do anything. It is only my mother who understands my case and she is always willing to help me."

She recalls a time when she was about to return to school and she asked her brother money for the bus. "I don't want you to bother me! I'm not your brother," came the reply.

However, Nirere managed to get to school after her uncle intervened. "What I experienced since my legs were amputated affected me psychologically. Sometimes I feel depressed and I even tried to commit suicide but failed," she says.

As someone who grew up with a disabled younger brother, Vedaste Kayiranga, 54, who is now a nurse at Kanombe hospital, shares the experience. "Based on what I saw during my childhood, disabled kids were not a concern for their parents as were normal kids," he observes.

According to Kayiranga, his parents used to favor him and his siblings unlike his disabled brother. "While we went to primary school, my father kept him at home to do domestic chores."

By the time Kayiranga finished his secondary studies in 1978, his father had passed away, though the rest of the family members still did not accept his brother. So Kayiranga enrolled him in a vocational training centre as it was impractical to sign up to formal education at the time. Today, the brother is a professional tailor who feeds his family, instead of the worse fate that still befalls many disabled people. "If you stigmatize someone because of disability, they often see only one option to survive: begging."

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