Promoting the rights of children with disabilities

With the effective implementation the world over of the Conventions on the Rights of the Child and of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, there can be a paradigm shift in the way the human rights of children with disabilities are promoted, protected and fulfilled. This shift is urgently needed!

The life of children with disabilities is surrounded by stigma, discrimination, cultural prejudices, ill- perceptions and shocking invisibility. Unfortunately, it is also dramatically marked by heightened risks of violence, neglect, injury and exploitation.

In spite of limited data and research, available studies reveal an alarming prevalence of violence against these children – from high vulnerability to physical and emotional violence when they are young to greater risks of sexual violence as they reach puberty.

Children with disabilities are still too often envisaged as a curse, a cause for shame to the family, and a misfortune for the community. In some countries, disability is perceived as the result of witchcraft and evil spirits inhabiting the child; the child’s liberation is believed to be dependent on starvation, exposure to extreme heat or cold, or fire, as well as severe beatings.

When used as beggars, children with disabilities are subject to violence to be kept on the streets, and endure physical abuse and torture to attract attention and be worthy of charity.

In schools, often segregated and of low quality, they endure beatings, bullying and abuse by ill-prepared teachers who fail to understand and attend to their special needs; and they suffer similar treatment by peers.

When placed in residential institutions, with ill-trained, ill-paid and often frustrated staff, and surrounded by stigmatizing attitudes in the community, the chances for physical violence, verbal and emotional abuse reach dramatic levels.

For families of children with disabilities, heavy demands and enhanced stress, lack of social and medical support, lack of information on relevant services and entitlements, and a deep sense of isolation aggravate the risk of violence within the household. Some families respond with neglect rather than active violence; others keep the child isolated and with limited contact with the outside world, including to protect him or her from abuse and stigmatization - sometimes in dramatic conditions in windowless rooms or hot courtyards; and still others provoke “mercy killings” putting an end to the child’s suffering – at times under the pressure or advice of other family members or influential actors in the community.

When incidents of violence take place, most children do not know where to go and whom to call to seek advice and support; they feel pressed to conceal their stories, fearing further stigmatization, harassment, abandonment and reprisals. For children with disabilities these challenges are clearly bigger!

These children are more likely to experience physical, psychological and sexual violence; they are less likely to be addressed by counseling and prevention programmes, and to attract targeted protection services; and they face enhanced difficulties to challenge and protect themselves from incidents of violence.

Children with disabilities may be unwilling to complaint, fearing they will lose the support of caregivers, the attention and affection of those they have come to depend on; or may miss education and support services, because there is simply no alternative.

If available, counseling, reporting and complaint institutions may be physically difficult to access; lack accessible and appropriate information that children may effectively use; and may fail to provide the needed support children are entitled to.

Moreover, incidents reported by children with disabilities are largely dismissed – staff is ill-trained and unprepared to effectively take them into account; there is a prevailing perception that children with disabilities are easily confused, unable to tell their story or to provide testimonies in a convincing and accurate manner; and still too often, the justice system far from being child friendly and disability sensitive.

The challenges for a blind child to identify a sexual offender illustrate this well. But in many countries, additional barriers persist, with legislation failing to recognize the testimony in court of children with disabilities; and preventing these children from swearing on oath or signing their names in legal documents.

The convergence of all these factors leads to a conspiracy of silence and a strong sense of impunity surrounding incidents of violence against children with disabilities.

It is imperative to reverse this pattern! It is crucial to adopt in all countries legislation banning all forms of violence against children – all children, including children with disabilities – and in all settings! It is urgent to establish in all countries effective and well-resourced child and disability sensitive mechanisms to prevent and address incidents of violence! It is essential to invest in awareness and information, including research about child disability and the forms and prevalence of violence compromising the enjoyment of their rights.

More than ever, we need to join hands with children and young people with disabilities, with their families and with organizations promoting the protection of their rights

With this year’s General Assembly debate on the rights of children with disabilities, we have a unique opportunity to promote a quantum leap in the way the rights of children with disabilities have been addressed and a golden opportunity to advance the process of establishment of effective and well-resourced sensitive mechanisms to prevent and address incidents of violence.

This is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss!

Marta Santos Pais
New York, 20 June 2013