In solidarity to the 16 days activism against gender-based violence, this article highlights the structural violence that impedes the rights of children with disabilities —including girls— in Kenya. The author Stephen Ucembe, who is an alumni of the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, emphasizes the need to protect the rights of children confined to institutional care.
Every child, including those with disabilities, is entitled to the rights enshrined in the Convention of the Rights of the Child which Kenya has ratified. As a country, we have agreed to uphold these rights through the Children’s Act 2022.
However, in contravention of their rights, children with disabilities are often hidden away in communities or sometimes separated and isolated in institutions against their wishes. Isolation from communities on the basis of disability is discriminatory. It is a dereliction of duty – an abdication of responsibility by the government. Supporting these children to be visible in our communities and families normalizes disability. Hiding them from others dehumanizes and perpetuates stigma and discrimination, hence exacerbating the problem.
Furthermore, unnecessary placement in residential care institutions often multiplies violations; children with disabilities are denied other rights, like the right to family and community care, to culture, to identity, to freedom of association.
A global Human Rights Watch report, published in 2017 titled, ‘Children with disabilities: Deprivation of liberty in the name of care and treatment’ documented that children with disabilities often face severe neglect and abuse. This included beatings and psychological violence, sexual violence, involuntary and inappropriate medical treatment, use of abusive physical restraints, seclusion and sedation, denial of education and denial of regular contacts with families.
An investigative media exposé traced how the problems described above play out locally. It uncovered multiple human rights violations perpetuated against institutionalized children with disabilities, by a government agency.
Nobody is seeking to romanticize families and communities. There are many children facing abuse, neglect and exploitation, including stigma and discrimination within family and community settings. However, studies consistently point to serious violations in institutional care settings. Moreover, over 80 years of research shows that supported families and communities are far better equipped than institutions when it comes to improvement of children’s overall well-being.
The primary role of government should not be to create more barriers, or spaces that deepen inequality and diminish inclusivity. Yet, this is exactly what we do when we institutionalize these children or neglect them in communities. The role of the government should be to ensure their protection and enjoyment of all rights, through full inclusion and participation in the community.
To make inclusion a reality, we need responsive initiatives that tackle ubiquitous stigma and discrimination. That starts with community services and facilities available to persons with disabilities, enabling them to access education, housing, rehabilitation and therapy. It extends to respite care centers that allow struggling care-givers time off, or time to go and work. And it means we must improve infrastructure and provide necessary assistive devices, aids and services, like hearing aids, crutches, wheelchairs, tricycles, white canes and walking appliances to support full participation.
Lastly, it’s up to us to ensure we do not leave these children behind in the care reform processes that the government has initiated. To support governments to include disabled children in family based alternative care, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities developed ‘Guidelines on deinstitutionalization, including in emergencies’.
These guidelines are meant to ensure an end to rampant violence against institutionalized persons with disabilities, including children. This advice should ensure children with disabilities are included and supported in families and communities, and prevent their institutionalization.
This article was first published on The Standard.
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About the author:
Stephen Ucembe is the Regional Advocacy Manager, Hope and Homes for Children. He is a professional social worker with skills, knowledge, and experience working with children and young people without parental care, and vulnerable families. His preference is to work in Kenya, or regionally (east and southern Africa) with organization (s) whose mission and vision is family and child focused.
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