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Traditional leaders ‘scared’ of disabled people

Accessing justice is hard enough for poor people living in rural areas but for disabled people in these areas, it’s often near impossible in the face of shocking prejudices and practices against them, participants at a Durban conference heard on Thursday.

“I tried to report a case of my boyfriend who did not want to support the child. The induna [chief] did not attend to me. They thought I was drunk because of my speech problem,” a disabled participant in research by nongovernmental organisation, CREATE, told the organisation.

Managing director, Sarah Rule, said the organisation, based in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), focuses on advocacy for disability rights and community-based rehabilitation. It conducted research earlier this year on Access To Justice For People With Disabilities In The Traditional Courts of northern KZN, focusing on the uThungulu district. She presented their findings at the Legal Resources Centre’s (LRC) disability conference in Durban.

Many people living in rural areas fall under the jurisdiction of traditional leaders and traditional courts but Rule and her colleague, Bongi Zuma, said they discovered that traditional leaders in the area had had no training on disabilities, had no knowledge of the Equality courts and some were even scared to work with disabled people.

One leader from uMfolozi told Rule during an interview: “Actually I am scared of disabled people because they are short tempered. I am scared of deaf people because if I do not understand they will hit [me].” Another leader from Ntambanana told her: “I only know that there is the Equality court. I do not know what kind of cases are dealt with in the Equality court. I have no clue. In summary we can say we do not know what Equality court is, the function of the Equality court and we do not know if it is functioning or not”.

Disabled people told Rule that “negative attitudes, lack of patience, inaccessible buildings and having to be represented by a family member” were the main barriers to accessing justice in the traditional courts.

“People with disabilities and women are seen as minors when bringing a case to the traditional court, and need to be represented by a man or a parent,” she told the conference.

She said the same disabled participant mentioned above described how she had a problem with water in her house. “I tried to phone the traditional councillor. When I was trying to explain my problem he switched off his phone and it was painful,” she apparently told Rule during an interview. The LRC’s conference focused on the marginalisation of women and disabled people in participating in socioeconomic activities for their benefit. So far CREATE has trained 271 people from 10 KZN districts about disabilities, human rights and the Promotion of Equality & Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, Rule told the conference.

She said some of the results of this training, which included the dissemination of manuals, and the conducting of four-day workshops, included participants taking action when the rights of others were violated, more people with disabilities representing themselves in various community structures and parents having increased confidence to claim their children’s rights.

Rule said a disabled person who has been accepted onto one traditional council said he now participates in court cases. “[The] Inkosi has been very supportive. The fact that … [a person with a disability] sits on the traditional council, it feels like we have won the soccer World Cup,” the disabled person, from uMfolozi, told her.

She said traditional leaders now also talk about disability in their meetings. One participant in the research told her: “The good thing is that traditional leaders are talking about people with disabilities in their meetings, which has improved the situation of being discriminated against on the basis of disability”.

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Victoria John
Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011.

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