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UNHCR: Living with disabilities on the fringes of society
By Carol Aketch, UNHCR
Fatuma’s experience mirrors the plight of many refugee women in Uganda. Her story is an illustration of why special attention should be paid to the needs of households experiencing exceptional hardship.
As the sole breadwinner in a household of ten, Fatuma barely ekes out a living among the urban poor in Kampala. She arrived in Uganda in 2012 after her home in Goma town, DRC, was attacked by militias. Her husband worked as a truck driver, transporting food from villages to the town centre. He fell foul of the authorities, then fled to escape their wrath.
Shortly afterwards the family home was attacked by unknown persons demanding to know the husband’s whereabouts. They beat and tortured Fatuma and her 14 year old daughter using a cigarette lighter. Mother and daughter were violated, and Fatuma’s son was killed.
Fatuma’s back was badly injured and her right leg became paralyzed. She fled for her life, together with her dependents, crossing into Uganda through Bunagana. Her unsteady gait made movement difficult. This was Fatuma's new reality; her times of tribulation was just beginning.
Unaccustomed to rural life, Fatuma decided the family should move to the capital, Kampala. They settled in one of the city’s heavily crowded slums where housing is very cheap.
Conditions endured by the urban poor are harsh. Shelters are dilapidated. The entire area floods in the rainy season. Worse still, Fatuma lives close to a drain that floods frequently. There is constant stagnant water as the residents dump garbage affecting flow of water.
With six dependent children, a grandchild aged two and a half years, two younger sisters, and a young brother-in-law, providing food and shelter are her only priorities.
"We live by the grace of God," she says. "Putting food on the table is a painful struggle." Fatuma barely scrapes up the 9,000 Uganda shillings (less than 3 USD) needed to pay the monthly rent.
In the beginning Fatuma lived on handouts and begging on the streets to survive. Now she sells mandanzi (a type of fried bread) under a shade near the shack that she calls home. Her son hawks the maandazi to school children and at the local church. This earns the family between 10,000 and 15,000 shillings a day for their basic needs.
Fatuma has chronic back problems. She and her family members are able to access free health care services at the nearby Kisenyi Health Facility like any Ugandan nationals. However, when drugs are out of stock outs or special treatment is needed in private health facilities, she has to meet the medical costs and or buy medicines.
Fatuma lives peacefully with her neighbours. However, though rare, occasional incidents of hostility from neighbours leave her feeling fearful, vulnerable and unable to protect her family. There is sometimes resentment by nationals who feel that refugees receive preferential treatment .
Recently, one of Fatuma's children was involved in a fight with another child. Women neighbours descended on her shack, roughed up her son, and threatened her. It took the intervention of the Local Council Chairperson and the Uganda Police, taking pity on Fatuma and pleading on her behalf to quell the neighbours. She acknowledges that it was an isolated incident, but Fatuma is afraid to let the children go out to play.
Fatuma's tribulations have left her with high blood pressure. All her children are out of school. Her eldest daughter, 19, is a mother. Her eldest son, 22, disappeared. "He left and never came back," she says. "We have looked everywhere."
Through InterAid Uganda, UNHCR's implementing partner, Fatuma received crutches, which aid her mobility and signed up for skills training opportunities targeting persons living with disabilities. She was selected to participate in a training course in catering at a Government Economics Institute. When Fatuma graduated she received a start-up kit comprising cooking stoves, pans and utensils. That is how she went from begging on the street to making maandazi to sell in the neighbourhood.
In the refugee context, persons with disabilities are discriminated against by default. They cannot chase public transport, climb stairs or even compete for casual work, which consigns them to a lonely existence on the fringes of the already underprivileged.