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When will disability become destigmatised in Ethiopia?

Ethiopian disability activist Yetnebersh Nigussie (Light for the World)
Ethiopian disability activist Yetnebersh Nigussie (Light for the World)

In Ethiopia, physical or mental disability often leads to lifelong discrimination, marginalisation and even feelings of shame. Marilyn Herman shares some of her own experiences in Ethiopia, and considers whether such widely held societal attitudes can be changed.

A man with cerebral palsy contacted a charity which helped destitute children and their families in Ethiopia, specifically wishing to sponsor a disabled child. The child found for him to sponsor was a nine-year-old girl, also with cerebral palsy, who did not have the use of any of her limbs or digits, and who experienced muscular pain.

Throughout the nine years of her life, she had never had a wheelchair and had never been to school, and her mother had been carrying her from place to place. In particular, she had taken her from one source of holy water to another, in hope of a miracle. Once a wheelchair was accessed for her through the charitable organization Cheshire Services, it was painful for her to sit in it for long periods, as her core muscles had not been strengthened enough to support her in a sitting position. In addition, the road from her home to her local school was not wheelchair accessible.

The mother of another sponsored child had been crippled by polio as a young child. Her parents took her to sources of holy water, and abandoned her at one of these sources.

Another account of a child’s life with disability dates back in time to 1992. I met two young Irish people in Addis Abeba who were interviewing street children for a charity. One of the children they interviewed was a young boy who was physically disabled and could not speak. The only person he was able to communicate with was his blind companion. Through his companion he explained that he spent his days begging, and at the end of each day, he would bring the proceeds home to his mother, who would not let him into the home, but forced him to sleep outside. The little boy broke down and cried, and expressed the wish to die.

The Olympic dream?

Addis Abeba By Sam Effron CC-BY-SA-2.0
Of Ethiopia's 94 million inhabitants, 8 million have disabilities.

The total population of Ethiopia is estimated at almost 94 million, out of which more than 8 million are disabled. The 2012 Paralympics did a wonderful job of making the UK’s – and probably of much of the world’s - public more aware of the kind of super-human feats people with physical disabilities can be capable of, and the degree of mental strength that must be required to achieve these. However, in Ethiopia, almost a third of the population live below the poverty line – some 27.5 million people. While these people are unlikely to have had access to TV coverage of the Paralympic Games, it remains to be seen whether the Games made an impact on the opinions of the remaining two thirds of the population.

Ethiopia sent four athletes – three men and one woman – to the 2012 paralympics held in the UK. One of these athletes, Wondiye Fikre Indelbu, won a silver medal in the men’s 1500 metres: Ethiopia’s first paralympic medal. However, this does not point to a general culture of increased opportunity for disabled people.

Marginalisation and limited access

In her book, Almaz Tamene Getachew outlines the extent to which disability is associated with shame and stigma in Ethiopia. The mother is generally held responsible by the father for the creation of disability in her child: it is seen to be a consequence of something she has done in her life. Generally, disability is seen in Ethiopia as a result of supernatural causes: the disabled child is viewed as a punishment meted out on parents by an angered deity or ancestral spirit, for example. For this reason, disabled family members are, in most cases, hidden from public view.

The view is commonly held of disabled people being dependent and therefore a burden on their families, of being impeded intellectually as well as physically, and of being unable to have families of their own. Viewed as outsiders, they are excluded from family and public gatherings, such as weddings, funerals and festivities. Their access to education and employment is even more restricted. In the case of education, it may be lack of physical access and economic factors which inhibit their access, as much as societal attitudes.

Ethiopia’s economy is based on agriculture,which accounts for 85% of employment.  Therefore, viewed as people without strength or ability to perform physical labour, the job prospects of people with physical disabilities are particularly limited.

An insurmountable problem?

There is a vicious cycle at work in the link between poverty and disability.  Major causes of disability are: malnutrition, complications during childbirth, poor access to healthcare – including vaccinations, a lack of early medical intervention following accidents and the onset of disease, and dangerous living conditions.

The years of war have also taken their toll on the country’s youth. When I was in Ethiopia in 1992, shortly after the end of the 30 year war with Eritrea, I saw many very young men in Addis Abeba who were missing limbs, but were without wheelchairs. Given the prestige bestowed upon war heroes, one would think that the war-disabled would not be low-status. However, it seems that negative attitudes are not confined to those born with physical disabilities, or who become physically disabled upon contracting disease.

In 2002, Ethiopia signed the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities – and yet, Getachew tells us, the stigma continues. As always, a number of charities make some inroads into the task of enabling the disabled, but the scale of the problem is huge. How does one begin to find a solution that will benefit all 8 million plus of Ethiopia’s disabled? Getachew has made a start, seeking to educate and change the attitudes of professionals and society’s “gatekeepers”. Once policy-makers are aware of societal attitudes, there is a need for them to legally open doors for inclusion.

SOS Children has protected Ethiopia's most vulnerable children for four decades. Today, we work in seven locations across the country, providing a new and loving home for children who cannot live with their families. Find out more about our work in Ethiopia.