As individuals who grew up in the United States, we have experienced first-hand the contributions people with disabilities make to their societies and families, when they are afforded the same basic rights, dignity and opportunities as their peers. We both grew up with family members who live with a disability, and are active and gainfully employed members of society. This perspective has impacted the work we do today in Afghanistan with special needs children.
In Afghanistan, 20% of families include someone with a severe disability (Handicapped International, 2005). The Asia Foundation is undertaking a disability survey this year which could reveal higher figures, as conflict has persisted over the past 14 years, and prenatal care, while drastically improved, is not yet ubiquitous. Patient data from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which operates rehabilitation centers across the country, shows that for both 2017 and 2018, over 50% of new patients were children with an amputation or congenital disability in need of treatment.
Despite their prevalence, persons living with disabilities and children with special needs continue to be one of the most disadvantaged and stigmatized groups in Afghanistan—absent from many halls of government, some shuttered away in homes, many excluded from schools, denied healthcare, and in extreme cases, abandoned. For Afghanistan to move forward and for individuals with disabilities to claim their rights requires not just improvements in policy, the implementation of programs, and the allocation of budget, but most importantly, a shift in the mindset toward disability in Afghanistan. It requires a movement led by activists with disabilities, by family advocates who have children with special needs, and by youth. We have witnessed the discrimination people with disabilities face on a daily basis, but also what they achieve when rights are accessed, opportunity is equal, and society is inclusive.
Some progress has been made over the past 18 years. Afghanistan is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The country affords rights to persons living with disabilities in its Constitution, and has drafted inclusive education and disability policies and action plans. A public sector hiring quota is in place to increase the employment of people with disabilities. In 2016, President Ashraf Ghani declared disability rights a government priority at the country’s first National Conference on Persons with Disabilities.
But much work remains to be done in implementing those policies and plans. Few effective programs have been implemented. National grassroots disability organizations competing for limited funding are struggling to keep their doors open. Most government buildings and schools are not wheelchair accessible. Quotas remain unfulfilled. Schools routinely turn children with special needs away. Inclusion and equal employment opportunities is a recurring request from Afghans with disabilities. Yet, rehabilitation and vocational training opportunities, and micro-finance programs, are extremely limited.
For a child living with a disability in Afghanistan, the chances of accessing basic rights largely depend on the determination of their family, oftentimes against all odds. In desperate cases, families living in extreme poverty (about 50% of the population) may abandon their child. This was the case for Jani Gul, a young mother from Badakhshan whose husband left their three children with special needs on the street to fend for themselves.
But we have encountered families and individuals who have overcome those odds—a veteran of the Afghan army who despite losing both legs invented a device that allowed him to drive a taxi to support his family; a mother who carried her son, paralyzed from polio, to every school within miles of her home to find one that would enroll him; an elderly father who, being the only one in his family with the required strength, became the sole caretaker for his daughter with cerebral palsy who required 24/7 care. Jani Gul eventually found her children and fled with them to Kabul, where she now cares for them in an apartment provided via our non-profit’s emergency assistance fund.
Not only are these families playing a critical role in changing the lives of their family members, but they are also setting an important example of what is possible when mindsets change. Discrimination is the most significant and damaging barrier in Afghanistan for persons with disabilities-—not the government, not lack of funds, and certainly not a lack of possibility.
We are starting to feel and see social change taking shape. It isprimarily being initiated from a young generation of Afghans, those below the age of 35, who have come of age during a time of rapid social progress. We have seen an increase in young Afghans reaching out to volunteer, donate portions of their monthly salaries, or facilitate recreational activities for the children we support. We have taken part in discussions on social media where young Afghans have spoken out for the educational rights of their siblings with disabilities. This spring, we discussed disability rights with pre-teen girls at Afghanistan’s only girls-only boarding school (School of Leadership Afghanistan) and listened to their pledges to be change-makers within their homes. This year was the first time that the school admitted a student with a disability—a 12-year-old who lost her arm and eye six years ago when a grenade exploded in her hand.
A national conversation has been ignited, one that is capable of breaking down attitudinal, institutional, and accessibility barriers that have been stacked against Afghans with disabilities for decades. We hope to see more champions pushing the current boundaries of society, allowing others to see that those boundaries exist only within closed minds. We hope to see more activists with disabilities uniting to hold the government to account and collectively advocating for inclusion. And we hope to see these social changes finally merge with strong political will within the government, most importantly from those who are in charge of implementing policy, developing programming, and allocating budget. We all witnessed the positive outcomes Afghan women, another social minority, achieved for themselves with the support of their government and the international community—now it’s time for Afghans with disabilities to achieve the same. This could be the generation of Afghans that changes the story of the disabled in Afghanistan to the story of the enabled.
Ilaha Eli Omar and Lael Mohib serve on the advisory council, and board of trustees, respectively, for the Enabled Children Initiative, a UK, US and Afghan registered charity that supports orphans and abandoned children with special needs in Afghanistan.