Conflict disabling people

Many people know the grim statistics that Nepal's bitter nine-year armed conflict has left over 12,000 dead. Yet far fewer are aware of the plight of those who have become disabled due to the violence. Though the exact number of disabilities (PWDs) is unknown, Handicap Inter-national Nepal confirms that the number of cases is steadily increasing.


During armed conflict, poor and excluded people, especially women and girls, are the most vulnerable to suffering. Thus, the poor are more likely to become disabled due to violence than the non-poor. And as PWDs are an excluded group, the poor amongst them may be said to possess 'double vulnerability' to violence.

Of course, disability and poverty are mutually reinforcing. In Nepal, it is estimated that two-thirds of PWDs are without employment. Poverty also causes new disabilities as a result of dangerous living and working conditions, malnutrition, inadequate healthcare and low education. The goal of eliminating poverty will be achieved only when the rights of excluded people - including PWDs - are respected, protected, promoted and fulfilled.

In Nepal, most conflict victim PWDs are of active working age. Now not only are they more likely to fall into the trap of chronic poverty and endure more violence, the vast majority of them also experience psychological trauma. The connections between conflict and disability represent a relatively neglected research area, apart from perhaps the subject of landmines. Landmines are certainly a serious problem. Unbelievably, Nepal has yet to sign the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. The UNDP has stressed the importance of landmine clearance for the realization of the Millennium Development Goals.

However, civilians are purposefully targeted in a variety of ways by combatants, which results in disability. This violates international humanitarian law (IHL), also known as the law of armed conflict. Prisoner combatants have rights under IHL, but their rights are frequently violated, again leading to more PWDs. Yet very rarely do we see combatants operating with anything other than impunity. It is worth remembering that disability caused by lawful uses of force will only stop once violence completely ends.

Moreover, there are other issues. One is the rehabilitation of conflict victim PWDs. Civil society organizations have increasingly utilized Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) approaches to rehabilitate PWDs. Responding to needs for therapy, assistive devices and home support, CBR utilizes community resources, involves PWDs in educating caregivers and in planning, and focuses on social and economic issues. Thus, CBR promotes the use of local skills and materials, accountability, participation, social responsibility and self sufficiency.

Despite these strengths, CBR approaches during armed conflict need to overcome two main problems. First, Oxfam estimates that 80 percent of caregivers for PWDs are women. Expecting women to assume CBR responsibilities means another burden on those already overloaded with responsibilities. So it is vital to develop strategies to support women's involvement in CBR.

Secondly, both exco batants and civilian victims can represent constant reminders of violence to their communities. Dem-obilisation and reintegration programs are thus essential to reduce tensions which may fuel further mistrust and even violence.

Another critical issue is that of empowerment. The finest CBR empowers PWDs to organize, mobilize and advocate for their rights. Greater effort and funding is needed to facilitate the creation of vibrant conflict victim PWD activists, groups, organizations and networks that have the capacities to influence policy in a coordinated fashion. Indeed such actors have the potential to be leaders in peacemaking activities.

Donors need to alter their attitudes, policies and strategies with regard to disability. What is required is a long-term focus on disability. Disability needs to be integrated into donor policies and strategies on conflict, and funding needs to increase in order to raise the financial, human and technical resources available for conflict victim PWDs.

All actors need to adopt a holistic approach to disability, none more so than the government. The duties of both armed groups have been noted. But in all other spheres, the government is the most crucial actor, as it is responsible for ensuring human rights for all. Currently, the state provides security personnel with better rehabilitation than the poor and excluded. In addition, the state must allow PWDs and their organizations more space to engage in right-based activity, thus facilitating better collaboration and learning between different types of actors at different levels.

The lack of government policy and action in support of the rights of PWDs is deeply disappointing. Like other disadvantaged groups, PWDs need to have reservations coupled with special provisions in public sector bodies. Further, the review and reform of existing legislation from a human rights perspective is fundamental. This not only includes the 1982 Disabled Persons Protection and Welfare Act, but also other Acts that do not eliminate inequalities. The particular needs and concerns of female PWDs must be taken into account. At the same time, it must be recognized that weak enforcement of legislation renders it meaningless. Public attitudes towards PWDs generally range from open contempt to charity - but they are almost never based on human rights. From a human rights perspective, shortcomings in the human-made environment prevent PWDs from participating on equal terms. Whilst it is primarily the government's responsibility to educate society to better recognize and understand the vulnerability of PWDs, many more non-PWDs can take the initiative and join PWDs in the struggle for human rights.

Von: 28 September 2005,, by SUNITBAGREE & MEEN RAJ PANTHEE

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