On 18th September 2021, the Daily Monitor ran a story about a 16-year old girl who is visually impaired and has a mental disorder who has given birth twice within a period of 18 months. The girl’s mother stated that the girl was sexually abused during the lockdown period. However, before the lockdown, the girl was boarding at a special needs school in Jinja district and was safe from such abuse. The case of this 16-year girl illustrates the particular vulnerability of students with disabilities during the lockdown period.
Children across the country have been negatively affected by the closure of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, not all children have been affected in the same way. For children in private schools and who have access to electronic devices and tutors, the disruption only extends to adapting to online schooling. For those who have safe and supportive home environments, the negative impact looks like long periods of boredom and isolation and the addition of a year or two to their school career, causing them to enter the job market somewhat later than expected. For most, the closure of schools has meant that their school careers have either been halted or ended, and that they are vulnerable to become victims of early or forced marriage, sexual abuse, early pregnancy and child labour. Perhaps the most vulnerable of all are children with disabilities who depend on the safety of their school environment for protection against sexual violence.
According to the World Bank, in the year 2017, 9,597 pupils with impairments were enrolled in pre-primary school; 172,864 children with special needs were enrolled in primary school and 8,945 students with special learning needs were enrolled in secondary school. A further 10% of children with disabilities access education through special schools. This means that thousands of children with disabilities have been rendered severely vulnerable to sexual abuse due to the closure of schools.
According to the National Union of Women with Disabilities in Uganda (NUWODU), blind women are vulnerable to sexual abuse because they are not able to visually identify the perpetrator and it is more difficult to collect evidence of such a crime. There is also a cultural belief in some communities that a person can be cured of HIV if they have sex with a person with an impairment. Physical impairments may also make it more difficult for victims to fight back or call for help if they are attacked. There are intersecting vulnerabilities for children with disabilities and a corresponding duty on the State to protect the rights and interests of these children.
Uganda has ratified to most prominent international instruments and have enacted policies and laws relating to the rights of People With Disabilities, including the Persons with Disabilities Act of 2020. This framework is intended to promote the inclusion of the PWDs and to address discrimination. Unfortunately, the special needs and safety of students with disabilities have nevertheless been left out of consideration in the COVID-19 response. The government failed to meet its obligation to promote and protect students with disabilities against violence in this period. No consideration or special effort was made to keep special schools open as a safe haven for students with disabilities, even though many of the private schools were able to operate all through this period, while protecting both students and teachers from COVID-19. At a time like this, students with disabilities simply cannot afford to be out of school for any longer. How many students with disabilities would have suffered sexual violence before the schools reopen in January of 2022? The time is now to allocate an additional budget, take additional measures and ensure that we protect vulnerable children. It is a matter of urgency for the government to fulfil its obligations toward students with disabilities and to ensure that they can go back to school.
By Hope Jakisa Owor and Linette Lubuulwa,