By Emmanuel Goujon (AFP), Wednesday, 04 November 2009
ADDIS ABABA — In the streets of the Ethiopian capital hundreds of disabled people beg, some from makeshift wheelchairs, the less fortunate dragging themselves on their hands from car to car.
Disabled people are seldom taken care of by institutions here; mostly they are either left to their own devices on the street or kept behind closed doors because their families are ashamed of them.
“The traditional perception is that a child with disabilities is the result of a curse, or the work of the devil,” said Fantahun Melles, who heads the International Labour Organization’s programmes for the disabled in Ethiopia.
“The situation is worse in the countryside than in the cities. Generally speaking, people think the only place for a disabled person is in the street to beg or in front of a church, otherwise they are … segregated from the community, which can lead to serious mental disorders,” he told AFP.
The ILO has set up a programme, with funding from Ireland, in an attempt to reintegrate disabled people into society through training courses, raising awareness and encouraging solidarity among disabled people.
Shemsia Hiyar, 38, one of the beneficiaries of the programme, has a small corrugated iron workshop in a working class district of Addis Ababa, where she makes leather bags.
“I never dreamt of having my own business, but today, even if I’m still facing challenges, I’m happy. I earn about 500 birr a month, but it can fluctuate and I employ five people including two women with disabilities,” she told AFP.
Five hundred birr, equivalent to about 25 euros, is more than the average monthly salaray in Ethiopia, a poor Horn of Africa country with some 80 million inhabitants.
“I hate two things in life: dependency and begging. This program has changed my life and now even my family’s perception of disabilities has changed because I’m not dependent on them, and because sometimes I even earn more than them,” Shemsia said, leaning on a crutch.
An accident left her with one leg shorter than the other.
Statistics on disabled people are hard to come by in Ethiopia.
“The estimation is between seven and 10 percent of the population living with disabilities. For them the poverty level is far greater, and they suffer from discrimination,” ILO’s Fantahun said.
The ILO set up its programme six years ago and since then more than 1,100 disabled Ethiopian women have undergone training while new laws have been passed to improve the status of handicapped people, notably in the world of work.
Yetnebersh Nigussie, 26, is a young blind woman full of energy. She studied law and now works in an NGO that helps disabled people. She has also started a school for underprivileged children.
“Education changed my life so I wanted to provide this weapon to other kids. Education is a tool for independence. Blindness has been my chance because I come from a poor rural family where girls are married very young, like at eight years old,” she told AFP.
In her school 130 children are enrolled, many of them disabled, like six-year-old Seham Shikur.
Despite being blind, she wants to “be a pilot and fly to China”.