RHTO Advocates for the Rights of Children with Disabilities in Timor-Leste

**Nota: ita bele mós lee testu ne’e iha lian Tetun iha RHTO nia Blog.

Last week, RHTO submitted a report on The Convention on the Rights of the Child to the UN human rights mechanisms in Geneva. Our report brings attention to the situation for children with disability in Timor-Leste, and supplements the state party report submitted by the Government of the Republic of Timor-Leste. RHTO’s field staff came together to provide information for the report, based on their experiences and interactions in their individual municipalities. This blog post summarises our report, and you can find a full copy of the report here.

People with disability march through the streets of Dili during International Day for Persons with Disabilities in December 2014. They are holding a banner calling for inclusive education for all people who have vision and hearing disabilities.

RHTO’s field staff pointed out that although Timor-Leste’s Constitution explicitly provides for non-discrimination and equal treatment for persons with mental or physical disabilities, in many communities around the country, stigma and discrimination against people with disabilities remains common. Negative terms still commonly used include “aleijadu” (crippled) and “ema bulak” (crazy person). This leads to people with disability feeling left out and scared to participate in society. Indeed, a study undertaken in 2010 found that people with disability may be “shunned, ignored, driven from their communities, imprisoned in rooms or chained to objects to keep them out of sight”.

There are multiple barriers that prevent birth registration of children with disabilities in Timor-Leste. According to the Government’s National Disability Action Plan for 2012-2018, disability is more common in rural areas of Timor-Leste. But it is more difficult for parents in rural areas to obtain identity cards, because of distance to government offices. This inability to get identity cards leads to barriers when children with disability want to enter the school system.

There is also evidence that violence and neglect of children with disabilities is widespread in Timor-Leste. Due to the shame and stigma associated with disability, many families hide children inside the house, or limit the child’s exposure to society. There is evidence of shackling and restraining of children with disability, particularly children with mental health or psychosocial impairments. RHTO field staff are also aware of situations in which children with disabilities have been left in the family house all day without supervision, food, water, or means of communication.

Partially due to this shame, children with disabilities in Timor-Leste face significant challenges attending and completing schooling. The 2010 Census reports that 72 per cent of people with disability in Timor-Leste had never attended school. A 2011 report on access to education for children with disability, which involved interviews with people with disabilities and their families as well as teachers and education officials, identified a number of barriers for this lack of access, including: inaccessible infrastructure, distance, cost, community and family attitudes, lack of access to assistive devices and rehabilitation, and lack of training on disability for teachers.

Children with sensory impairments, such as children who are blind or Deaf, face particularly significant challenges in attending school and learning. Regular schools throughout the country are not equipped to provide Braille materials or sign language interpretation, and they are not able to teach in these formats. The only option for children who are Deaf is the AGAPE School in Dili. Some children move away from their families in the municipalities to attend this school in Dili, however this deprives them from their right to a family environment (CRC Article 20) and does not facilitate their right to education through the mainstream schooling system.

It is important that the government recognize that these barriers to inclusion exist for children with disabilities, and work to change policies and programs to ensure that they positively impact the lives of people with disabilities. To begin, the Government could do more to support attitude change and to demonstrate the importance of listening to the voices of children with disabilities. For example, the Government can put into practice the disability advocacy concept of “nothing about us, without us”, by mandating that children and youth with disabilities must be consulted on the development of policy and programs that impact them.

But RHTO isn’t just waiting for the Government to take action. We are actively working to create a more inclusive society for children with disabilities. Currently, RHTO supports children with disabilities by providing them scholarships to attend school, as well as microfinance loans to the families of children with disabilities to boost the economy of their household. Togther, we can make a society in which all children with disability have the same opportunities as other children.

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