Honourable Ummy Nderiananga, formerly the chairperson of SHIVYAWATA, the federation of associations for persons with disability (PWDs), now holds a ministerial position in the Tanzanian Cabinet in charge of the welfare of PWDs. She, herself a person with a physical disability, leads an increasing number of high calibre, hardworking and qualified individuals that have ascended the career and professional ladder in the country’s civil service.
The government has increased the selection of PWDs in high-level government officials, sending a clear message to the Tanzanian society on the capability and contribution of PWDs in the country’s leadership and development. However, despite these efforts, still, the ratio of PWDs in leadership positions, is still low.
Civil society starts at the community – working to change citizens’ perception towards PWDs
As a marginalised group, the question of why PWDs hold fewer leadership positions in our society can be looked at from various angles, including that of trust, respect and belief in them in our communities. However, this is where our society fails.
“Since my childhood, I had grown in a society that perceives that people with disabilities have nothing to offer to the community and are always dependent. This always makes us feel worthless and sometimes less of a human” says Mzee Philemon Masumega, Chairman of Tanzania League for the Blind (TLB) in Mpwapwa district, Dodoma region.
He is supported by Mr Noah William Lemto, Councillor for Kimagai Ward, Mpwapwa, “There is so much stigma towards PWDs in communities until it hurts.’’
Our communities have so much stigma towards PWDs that at times some homesteads are forced to hide their children with disabilities. Some don’t send them to school. Some don’t get immediate medical attention for cases that are treatable until the situation gets worse
“Our biggest challenge is the lack of awareness and understanding in our communities towards the rights of PWDs and their special needs,” says Mr Mahuwi Dickson Legaza, Ward Councillor for Vig’hawe in Mpwapwa.
Harmful traditions fuelling stigma towards PWDs
In many communities, a family with a person with a disability is viewed as cursed and is often frowned upon.. These beliefs are steered by harmful traditions and a lack of community awareness and education on the rights of PWDs. As a result, unspeakable pain and hurt is experienced by PWDs, who some resort to distancing themselves from the rest of the community. “Some members in our communities don’t listen to People wth disabilities. They are usually stigmatized, making it difficult for them to participate in anything in our villages and our lives” says Halima Msonde, Member of PWD Committee in Vig’hawe Ward.
She adds “The tradition of hiding children with disability is firstly a defence mechanism so that they don’t go through the jeers and stigma from rest of the community. This denies the children access to education”.
Adds Philemon Michael Malima, PWD Committee Secretary in Kimagai Ward, “Many people with disabilities face isolation by the community limiting their participation in decision making processes. Most people with disabilities don’t even know their rights as a result as well”
Community initiative by the civil society
Following an assessment of these challenges, Foundation for Civil Society provided a grant and capacity-building to TLB in Mpwapwa so they can implement a community-focused initiative aimed at increasing inclusion of people wth disabilities and raising awareness on people with disabilities rights in the district. Mpwapwa is a district in the Dodoma region with a population of over 340,000 people (Dodoma Investment Guide, 2019).
The project’s mandate was to build community awareness and capacity building of PWDs to increase and influence the inclusion of PWDs in decision making processes at local government authorities. The project covered the Wards of Mpwapwa Town, Kimagai, Godegode and Vig’hawe.
The project also aimed at ensuring that PWDs are fully involved in development and their welfare concerns are taken into account. Apart from community awareness and training sessions, a series of activities carried out resulted in the formation of four (4) PWD Committees each comprising of 10 members. The committee members were selected by citizens in village meetings.
These committees engaged community members in creating awareness of stigma towards people with disabilities. TLB and relevant LGA officers conducted training to all committees with awareness and understanding of national Laws and Policies on disability and PDWs. In addition, the committees proceeded to map all PWDs in their communities.
Results impacting communities
Vighawe Ward Councillor, Mahuwi Dickson Legaza: “Before the TLB interventions, it was close to impossible hearing issues and concerns of PWDs being discussed in various platforms. Now PWDs are represented in these platforms. All public service provision initiatives nowadays must include the special needs of vulnerable and marginalised groups such as PWDs”
The project by TLB in Mpwapwa has helped in increasing community awareness in all Wards covered. Moreover, PWDs are increasingly getting involved in leadership opportunities in their communities, which guarantee them a voice for their concerns.
Also, communities are increasingly interested to learn about the needs and rights of PWDs. This is a result of the inclusion of PWDs in the community platforms. The intervention has broken barriers and reduced stigmatization towards PWDs. More PWDs hold leadership positions today in Mpwapwa compared to before this initiative was implemented.
“After these training sessions, I have increased my understanding of many issues in the community. I am more confident and not constrained by my visual impairment. I fully participate in the Land Committee meetings and is very keen to follow up all issues touching the welfare of PWDs” says Masumega.