BURUNDI: HIV policy ignores the disabled

Photo: Judith Basutama/IRIN
Fabien Hamisi uses sign language to teach the hearing impaired about HIV and AIDS
BUJUMBURA, 7 May 2008 (PlusNews) - Fabien Hamisi can neither hear nor speak, but don't call him dumb just because he speaks a language not understood by everybody.

Hamisi is the executive director of Burundi's National Association for the Deaf, which aims to facilitate communication for the hearing-impaired by teaching them sign language.

Burundi's HIV/AIDS policy has no special provision for HIV education for the disabled, so this section of the population remains largely unaware of even the basic facts about the virus. "On the TV we only see images, but with no interpreter there is no message," said Hamisi.

Few deaf people in Burundi have access to formal education and the few private schools for the hearing-impaired do not go beyond primary education. As a result, not only do they miss out on HIV/AIDS awareness programmes taught in schools, but many never learn to read, write or even sign.

Most communicate using made-up signs that are only comprehensible to their immediate family, but the National Association for the Deaf has recently begun to teach them formal sign language and is educating them about the dangers of HIV. "It is the only message on HIV/AIDS people like me can access," said Charles Njejimana, one of those who has benefited from this training.

The hearing-impaired are not the only disabled group left out of HIV/AIDS education. "For those with hearing or visual impairments, the messages are not adapted to their handicap; for others with physical handicaps, they cannot reach the places where they can get information such as public meetings, health centres, etc," Pierre Claver Seberege, chairman of the National Assembly of the Disabled, told IRIN/PlusNews.

At a meeting on HIV/AIDS and the disabled in April in the capital, Bujumbura, Immaculée Nahayo, the Minister for National Solidarity, who is also responsible for human rights issues, said Burundi had an estimated 15,000 HIV-positive disabled people.

Especially vulnerable

Handicap International, the non-governmental organisation that organised the meeting, supports 15 associations of disabled people in Burundi, training them as HIV/AIDS peer educators and teaching them skills such as tailoring and carpentry.

Come Niyongabo, coordinator of programmes at Handicap International, pointed out that people with disabilities were often wrongly viewed as sexually inactive. He noted that in Burundian tradition, a child born with a disability of any kind is seen as a curse - a person to be hidden from the eyes of the world.

"This marginalisation is why disabled women are unlikely to get married, or have a tendency to accept any [sexual] proposal from men," Niyongabo told the meeting. "You will find many disabled women and girls pregnant because they consider that getting a child will [give them] value in the eyes of the community; this exposes them to multiple sexual partners and therefore to increased risk of HIV."

Women with disabilities are also easy prey for rapists, as many of them are not in a position to defend themselves from physical attack. Some Burundians also believe a myth that sex with a handicapped girl is associated with good luck. "Many traders seek sex with them to get their businesses prosperous," Niyongabo commented.

Delegates at the meeting called on the government to incorporate the disabled into the national policy for HIV prevention, treatment and care, and encourage their participation at all levels of HIV decision-making.

"All people involved in the sector should design specific messages to take into account the different forms of disability: specific messages for those with hearing or visual impairment, or even the mentally disabled," said Seberege, of the National Assembly of the Disabled.

The disabled were also challenged to be more outspoken about their needs and to take the lead in issues pertaining to their health.


Theme (s): HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Prevention - PlusNews, Stigma/Human Rights/Law - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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