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Advocacy Project Blogs - 2008 Fellow: Annelieke van de Wiel

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Opening doors

Posted By: Annelieke

A delayed update of my blog. The last month was incredibly hectic and I lost myself somewhat in the details of the local government structures, the history of the conflict in this region, the emergence and current status of the ‘government protected’ IDP camps, the Ugandan and international legislation on rights of persons with disabilities, the history and internal organization of the Gulu Disabled Person Union and its affiliated Associations from district right down to village level, the preparatory work for the advocacy workshop organized by Survivors Corps, frequent and long-lasting power cuts, a lack of internet, many other things, but mainly: the field trips to the camps and villages, the people we met there, the stories they shared with us.

Last month’s numerous field trips were revealing. I saw with my own eyes how persons with disabilities in the camps and villages remain generally marginalized, invisible, forgotten. I met people who after 5 years still carried bullets fired by the LRA in their limbs, causing daily pain and immobility. I spend half an hour joking with a very bright kid who couldn't go to school as he couldn't walk. I had the pleasure of getting to know the very kind and insightful Francis who hasn’t been able to walk, stand or even sit upright for twenty years since he tripped over a branch while running away for the rebels. Due to the then intense insurgency, he never made it to hospital. Due to his current condition, he can’t move any body part but his hands and head. I met an old woman who dislocated her hip and who each day crawls around her hut in the camp to find food and water. How are they going to benefit from the numerous programmes, plans, projects and services available to the rest of the population here if they can’t even move from one place to another?

During the war, persons with disabilities suffered more than persons without disabilities. Even now the war has calmed down in this region, the disadvantaged position remains unchanged and largely unaddressed. I’m not illustrating this to show that these people are pitiable and just in need of aid. I want to show that through a changed approach of reconstruction stakeholders in this region, people could be facilitated to uplift themselves from their papyrus math on the ground to independency, to education and community participation, if possible at home rather than in the camp. To be able to have an equal chance as able bodied community members to thrive, a change in approach would make a real difference.

Just as an example, the main governmental development programme for the region, the PRDP (The Peace, Recovery and Development Plan), brushes off the issue of disability by mentioning it just a few times, indirectly, always under the general heading of “vulnerable people”. Persons with disabilities are not at all mentioned in for example the section on education, health or sanitation, whereas without paying attention to accessibility -think about ramps, mobility aids, transport and means of communication- the door for persons with disabilities remains firmly closed to these services.

I hold big objections to grouping persons with disabilities under “vulnerable people”, together with for example orphans and the elderly, as done by the government as well as NGOs. Grouping people like that seems just an easy way out. How can you simultaneously address the needs of an orphan who fails to go to school because he cannot afford a uniform and a man in his twenties who due to war related spinal cord injury is confined to his hut and immediate surroundings? The needs of persons with disabilities are unique, real and urgent and need to be recognized as such, just as the needs of any orphan child. In both cases, the denial of needs amounts to discrimination and the denial of rights.

The Gulu Disabled Persons Union’s current main project, the IDDP (Internally Displaced Disabled Persons) Project, sponsored by Motivation Africa, was recently launched to improve equality for persons with disabilities in several ways. First of all, it aims to research and improve the extent to which development actors (governmental and non-governmental) include disability issues into their programmes. A draft report has so far concluded that: “The Government, local leaders, international and national NGOs that are providing services in the camps for displaced persons are not aware of the needs and rights of PWDs [persons with disabilities].” In addition, the project invests in the mobility and peer group support and advocacy capacity of persons with disabilities.

The Gulu Disabled Persons Union has achieved a lot in the past, and is very effective in its current approach. The Union’s waters are turbulent. A lot is going on. The last month a large number of tricycles have been provided, several workshops were organized or facilitated (with as a highlight the advocacy workshop organized by Survivor Corps about which I will tell more soon), several articles on the work of the Gulu Disabled Persons Union were published in national newspapers (for example the one in the Daily Monitor with one of my pictures of Francis), many local and national leaders and decision makers were alerted and informed on persons with disabilities’ challenges and rights, and the Gulu Disabled Persons Union used several hours of radio air time sensitizing the community on the rights of persons with disabilities. Even so, as I hope this blog highlights, they cannot achieve real change and open doors alone, and there is still a very long way to go.


Waking up

Posted By: Annelieke

In any society, persons with disabilities face big challenges. Now imagine how life is like for a disabled person in a developing country. And not just in any developing country, but in a region affected by decades of war and violence. In case you are born without any disabilities, imagine what life is like if you’re blind, deaf or if you cannot walk, say in The Netherlands. Now imagine the same thing but while living in a camp for internally displaced persons with very limited facilities even for those who are not disabled.

In the camps, if you’re deaf, you’re very unlikely to know how to write your own name. Actually, as you probably never learnt sign language, you most likely don’t even know that you have a name. If you’re blind, you might not even have a cane to find your way around. Fetching water and fire wood becomes a huge burden and you largely depend on others. And what if you are blind and deaf, how do you communicate your needs to anyone to begin with? If communication is not a problem but if you have a physical disability, access to food, water and shelter is a daily struggle.

With the recent relative stability in the area, people are leaving the camps to go back home. But the people with disabilities stay behind. The radio broadcasts urging people to go home disappear into thin air when it comes to targeting the deaf. Government support in the form of supply of hoes and seeds are useless to the blind. If you are dependent on your wheelchair for some form of mobility, how are you going to find transport to go back home? And what is “home” after having been away for so long? Your land is likely to have been grabbed by others. So you go to court, right? Hopefully there is a ramp so you can access the local court with your wheelchair and/or hopefully there is a sign language interpreter present to translate your case to the local judge…

At least your disability will never disable you to hope. But your hope tends to be in vain.

There are many such issues that block the access of people with disabilities to water, food, health services and justice. And there are many people with disabilities in Gulu and Amuru district. A stroll around any camp or Gulu town will make this very clear straight away. (Not that a number should matter. Isn’t every single person equally entitled to human dignity, no matter how small or large the group of people in the same position?) Still, and this came to me as a huge surprise, the special needs of people with disabilities in camps are not in any way addressed by the government. A bigger surprise even: out of the enormous number of NGO’s in Gulu and Amuru District virtually none open their eyes to the urgent needs of people with disabilities.

Thank god for people like Simon and Alfred, respectively chairman and dedicated employee of the Gulu Disabled Persons Union, and the main people we are going to be working with. And thank you Simon and Alfred for your warm welcome to the Union’s office and for inspiring me with your focus and impressive advocacy efforts on behalf of people with disabilities in the area. To be honest I was never really very conscious of the difficulties faced by people with disabilities. It was also not the first thing that came to mind when thinking about northern Uganda’s IDP camps. I will now do everything I can to help you wake up others.



Posted By: Annelieke

We did not make it to Gulu yet and I did not really start my fellowship. Due to some logistical difficulties (we had to wait for a laptop to get repaired amongst other things) Mendi, the AP director of Africa programmes with contagious enthusiasm who I will be working with, and me are still in Kampala. The last few days we started discussing the work ahead and gathering and studying relevant material such as Uganda’s People With Disabilities Act of 2006 and Uganda’s Disability Policy. It’s now definite the focus of our work will be conflict survivors with disabilities in the Gulu and Amur districts in northern Uganda.

I am very much looking forward to meeting our partner organization, the Gulu Disabled Persons Union, an advocacy organization promoting the inclusion of PWD (Persons With Disabilities) rights in the reconstruction of northern Uganda, and I can’t wait to start the work. On the other hand, I don’t feel rushed as I will stay in Uganda until December. In fact I was very glad with the time to get to know Uganda’s capital city, to get to know people, and to enjoy and become comfortable with an unfamiliar culture. I tried to get as much exposure as I could. I paid a few visits to the Makerere University’s law faculty, attended a court hearing, sat a few chairs next to president’s wife during a film premiere and listened to her and her advisor’s speech, joined a friend to the police station to bail someone out, took another friend to the clinic for an X-ray after a car accident, went with another to the hospital, was taken along to a live radio show and found myself in good company and conversation on wooden benches in a bar in the slums 4 ‘o clock in the morning, amongst many other things. Not every single experience was as welcome and enjoyable but they all revealed a little about the country where I will be living the rest of this year. A country where everything seems possible for the rich and well connected, and where those with less luck often struggle to survive.

These new surroundings, experiences and the fantastic people I’m meeting could make me feel excited and on the edge the whole time. Instead I feel comfortable, fortunate, at ease and eager for more. (Thank you, last blog and those of you who read and reacted to it, for helping me find peace of mind.) I will really miss Kampala, but I am looking forward to what’s ahead in Gulu. Above all I look forward to finally starting what I came here for…

We are finally heading for Gulu this Tuesday. The work will start. We will support the ongoing disability campaigning. To do this, we will join forces with the Gulu Disabled Persons Union. The Union is a collective of five associations of disabled people advocates: blind people, deaf people, landmine survivors, women with disabilities and deaf and blind people. We will aid the advocates for disability rights with producing information (website content, newsletters as well as photo’s and video) and ICT capacity building. In addition, as we operate within the broader framework of the joined Survivor Corps/Advocacy Project Africa Programme, we will work towards building a broader coalition of conflict survivors who Advocacy Project and Survivor Corps will provide with services at a later stage.

What is mainly exciting about the work ahead, to me, is that this is (international) human rights law in action. The campaigning is all about bringing international and national human rights to the beneficiaries. Whatever legislation in place, it remains of no value until the moment of tangible implementation and translation to local reality, when local leaders are conscious about people’s rights and make a true effort in securing them, when the beneficiaries, in this case people with disabilities, are aware of their rights and the ways to invoke them and advocate for themselves. I am so excited to take part in this venture.

More news soon, from Gulu!


Pre-departure thoughs

Posted By: Annelieke

Weeks of hecticness, of too many things to leave behind in proper order, errands to run, of papers that need to be finished, of emails that need to be sent, people to say goodbye to and then, all of a sudden, there are only a few days to go before departure. As always I have been a bit ambitious in what I thought could be done in a few days. It’s deep in the night. I’m sitting in the attic of a friend’s house in Amsterdam, struggling to finish a big paper in just a few days. I try to focus on the here and now but my mind is already elsewhere: it’s travelling to London, to Dubai, and finally: to Kampala and Gulu, where I will live and work for AP for several months.

I do not feel comfortable introducing, describing or even analysing a situation in a region where I have never even been. Not yet. I did my research but as it stands, many of you probably know more about it than me. (I case you don’t, let me refer you to this excellent, very comprehensive report by Refugee Law Project on the background and impact of war in northern Uganda and a more recent and future oriented report on reconstruction after the war.) For this reason, I hope you don’t mind me starting off this blogging sequence with some very self-centred pondering. I can’t wait to write about the things around me in Uganda as soon as I’m there. But right now I’m still in this empty echoing attic room, and it is just me and my doubts, my insecurities, my hopes, my eagerness and my determination.

To be honest with you, I have been going through a bit of a mental struggle the last few weeks, which I think has unconsciously also kept me from posting this first long announced blog. Doubts and insecurities bugged me every time I sat down and wrote the first few lines. Not doubts about me wanting to go or about the project I’ll be working on, because that’s what the abovementioned eagerness and determination refers to, but doubts about the usefulness of me going and about whether I am ready for the tasks ahead. Researching the situation in northern Uganda is not an uplifting undertaking. The ordeal but also resilience of the people of violence-torn northern Uganda is something beyond my comprehension. It makes me feel silly, inexperienced and green. Why do I want to go? What on earth do I think I can change or contribute? And even if I would just go there for experience and learning –my own benefit- isn’t that in some way immoral and perverse? What seemed so natural, and what made so much sense when I first embarked on this fellowship, became, during the last weeks, confusing and has been making me feel restless.

In the end I decided to just share these pre-departure thoughts with you. I admit I wasn’t too sure about writing these things down in this first blog –knowing exactly what you’re doing and why you’re doing it is just so much cooler- but I have made the conscious decision to, in this and the following blogs, be as honest with you as I can.

So why do I want to go? Because yes I want to help change things for the better and yes I want to learn, to experience, to grow and to become a better person better fit and better able to contribute something to matters that strike me personally as particularly weighty and important: means to improve universal respect for people’s right to live a life in peace, dignity, security. Stuff every single person is equally entitled to. I want to see and understand and become involved. More involved than I am now, than I can be now.

I think we are all connected, and injustice being done to people far away is injustice being done to me personally and us all. This reflects the pedantic terminology of human rights books and treaties, but I feel it to be true. I studied “human rights” in the context of international human rights law and while being fully convinced of their importance, I want to incorporate a full awareness of their value and significance in my daily existence, so I can join in the global efforts aimed at securing them. I might be inexperienced, green, naïve, it might in some way be immoral. Despite all of that, it is what seems natural to me. Yes, it starts to make sense again. I accept my insecurities and doubts but also this drive. Lo and behold, my restlessness is receding, I regain focus. I am ready to go. As ready as I can be.

Next time less about “me”, I promise. As this is my first blog, I would like to warmly invite you to continue reading the following ones on my work and the situation in northern Uganda and share with the other readers and/or me any remark, criticism or question you might have (whatever you write, I will respond). Next posting from Uganda! For now: thanks for reading this blog and take good care.

Annelieke van de Wiel will be working this summer as an AP Peace Fellow, supporting an AP project that works with IDP populations in conflict-stricken Northern Uganda.

Annelieke started her academic career by studying modern history, religion studies, anthropology and human rights at the University of Utrecht. Irresistibly drawn to travel, to learning foreign languages and experiencing different cultures, she paid for her trips by working in bars and restaurants, in among other places Bournemouth, London, Edinburgh and Barcelona. During a student exchange in Buenos Aires she witnessed the legacy and trauma of years of violent political suppression. Upon her return she felt she could no longer be a mere bystander to human suffering deriving from persecution, violence and the denial of fundamental human rights.

She started volunteering at the asylum Application Centre at Amsterdam Airport, assisting asylum seekers and refugees who had just arrived in The Netherlands with their asylum application. It was, here, through many memorable and touching encounters with people who had just fled from violence that she developed a deep respect for their suffering and courage. Most importantly, she also came to feel a duty to use the education and opportunities available to her to help.

She changed her course of studies to public international law at the University of Amsterdam, focusing on human rights and national and international refugee law. She became President of the University of Amsterdam Student Association of International Law, and in that capacity has organized a wide variety of symposia and activities addressing human rights. She continued to volunteer at the Application Centre, working with asylum seekers. For the last half a year she has also been an intern at the UNHCR national office in The Hague.

While the project in Uganda itself is still taking shape, Annelieke is very much looking forward to finally working with the people she committed herself to a few years ago. Not by studying their problems in an academic light, not by helping file an asylum application far away from their homes, not by writing about them in an office in The Hague, but by working with them, shoulder to shoulder, in their own country.

Annelieke is thrilled she can now finally work in the field through AP.

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