Why West Africa civil society organizations are urging ECOWAS to prioritize disability inclusion

An illustration showing people with disabilities standing behind a barrier. Screenshot from Disability Inclusion Matters for All on World Bank YouTube channel. Fair use.

Disability inclusion remains a critical issue in Africa, with millions of people facing significant challenges in accessing education, employment, healthcare, and social protection. Civil society organizations in West Africa are urgently calling on the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to prioritize disability inclusion, warning that failure to do so may impede progress towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

According to the World Bank and ReliefWeb report, people with disabilities in Sub-Saharan Africa confront numerous obstacles that hinder their full participation in society. These challenges include limited access to education, employment disparities, inadequate healthcare services, pervasive social stigma, and insufficient access to social protection programs. Such barriers perpetuate a cycle of poverty and exclusion, preventing individuals with disabilities from reaching their potential and contributing to their communities.

To address the issue of disability inclusion, inclusive education must be prioritized as a fundamental stepping stone to empowerment and socio-economic mobility. Shockingly, the data from the World Bank reveals that only a small percentage of children with disabilities are enrolled in schools compared to their non-disabled peers, underscoring the need for inclusive education systems that accommodate diverse needs and foster a supportive learning environment. This requires governments to implement policies ensuring accessible schools, inclusive teacher training, and specialized support services. Additionally, awareness campaigns can help challenge disability stigma and promote a more inclusive mindset within communities.

Unemployment rates among persons with disabilities in Africa are significantly higher than among the general population, as emphasized by the ReliefWeb report. Overcoming barriers in the job market requires a concerted effort from governments, businesses, and civil society. Disability-inclusive hiring practices, workplace accessibility, and vocational training programs are essential to provide economic opportunities for people with disabilities. By empowering individuals with the skills and resources to pursue meaningful careers, Africa can tap into a vast pool of talent and drive economic growth through diversity and inclusion.

Quality healthcare is a basic human right, yet many people with disabilities in Sub-Saharan Africa face significant challenges in accessing essential medical services because of physical barriers, discrimination, and limited resources. Governments and healthcare providers must prioritize disability-inclusive health policies and services, ensuring that healthcare facilities are accessible to all, medical professionals are trained in disability-sensitive care, and affordable assistive devices are made available.

Before the Summit of Heads of State and Government in Guinea Bissau that took place on Sunday, July 9, a coalition of disability rights organizations comprising the West African Federation of Associations for the Advancement of Persons with Disabilities (FOAPH), Sightsavers, and Light for the World issued a joint statement. The statement implored member governments to commit to championing inclusion at the ECOWAS event and the forthcoming United Nations (UN) summit on the SDGs in September.

The SDGs, a collection of 17 ambitious global goals established by the UN and governments worldwide in 2015, aim to tackle poverty and reduce inequality by 2030. However, a recent UN report indicates significant gaps in progress toward achieving these goals. Sightsavers’ Global Advocacy Officer for Francophone West Africa, Saleck Ould Dah, highlighted the urgency of the situation, stating:

As the world is reaching the halfway point towards the 2030 deadline for achieving the SDGs, evidence shows that progress has derailed, and we are completely off-track.

Dah further emphasized the critical importance of inclusion, noting:

The promise to leave no one behind, including people with disabilities, is in peril. If the SDGs are to be delivered, now is the time to reflect on their implementation and the necessary global and national steps to achieve them.

The SDGs play a crucial role in promoting disability inclusion in Africa. They encourage countries to create policies and implement measures that ensure the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. The SDG Progress Report emphasizes the significance of disability-inclusive policies and practices. It acknowledges both the progress made and the challenges that persist in making the African continent more inclusive. The report highlights the importance of gathering data on disability and mainstreaming disability considerations across all sectors to develop targeted strategies for inclusion.

Through its Equal World campaign, Sightsavers urged ECOWAS to renew its commitment to greater inclusion of people with disabilities at the SDG summit. They called upon ECOWAS to serve as a champion for inclusion not only in West Africa but also on the global stage.

At the midway point of the SDGs, on September 18 and 19, world leaders, including ECOWAS heads of state and government, will convene at the UN SDG Summit in New York to assess progress and make commitments towards transformative and accelerated actions. The summit's outcome will be a negotiated political declaration to which member states can contribute. FOAPH President Yatma Fall acknowledged ECOWAS's historical leadership in inclusive commitments, stating:

ECOWAS has been a global leader in commitments to inclusion. The Equal World campaign calls on them to continue championing efforts to reach those who are being left furthest behind.

Fall further stressed the need for the involvement of people with disabilities in the processes leading up to the SDG Summit, emphasizing that an equal say in decisions that impact their lives is crucial to achieving a fair, inclusive, and equal world for all.

The joint statement released by the coalition forms part of Sightsavers’ broader Equal World campaign, which implores world leaders to recognize the jeopardy facing the promise to leave no one behind. The campaign urges them to ensure that the political declaration and all national commitments made at the SDG Summit prioritize reaching those who are most marginalized in global development.

Disability inclusion in Africa is not only a matter of social justice; it is imperative for sustainable development and growth. By recognizing the unique challenges faced by people with disabilities and taking proactive measures to address them, the continent can build a more inclusive, equitable, and thriving future for all its citizens. To achieve this vision, collaboration among governments, international organizations, civil society, and the private sector is essential. Through the implementation of disability-inclusive policies, investment in education and healthcare, and the promotion of inclusive workplaces, Africa can unleash the potential of its disabled population, fostering a society where every individual can contribute their talents and dreams to create a brighter future for everyone.

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