Giving hope to visually impaired woman in Palabek Refugee Settlement

By Francis Olanya (Published 8th March 2018)

As we commemorate International Women’s Day in Uganda under the theme “Empowerment of Rural Women and Girls: Opportunities and Challenges”, we are reminded that rural women and girls including refugee women and girls still have limited access to learning opportunities as a core empowerment strategy: The Global Education Monitoring report by UNESCO (2016) highlights that 63% of women have not attained minimum literacy skills.

With the aim of empowering refugees to lead dignified lives, Refugee Law Project (RLP) has been implementing English for Adults programme to empower refugees and asylum seekers from throughout the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa to speak their rights since 2007. 

RLP recently secured generous funding support from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, to promote win-win refugee-host relationships in northern Uganda. The project titled “Securing Refugee-Host Relations through Enhanced Protection in northern Uganda” is currently being implemented in Lamwo, Adjumani and Kiryandongo districts.

One of the objectives of the project is to empower refugees to speak for themselves through enhancing refugee-host communication through creation of skills and communication platforms. Through this programme, RLP provides basic English language skills in listening, speaking, reading, writing, and numeracy to refugees and asylum seekers. Our goal is that those who complete the course will have the necessary skills to speak their rights, advocate for fellow forced migrants, and demand for their rights and attain self-reliance.

In Palabek refugee settlement, Lamwo district, RLP enrolled 118 learners in its EFA Programme which strives to empower, inspire, guide, mentor refugees to speak, advocate, and demand for their rights. Amongst them is uniquely placed, a deaf, dumb and partially blind refugee woman from South Sudan called Eve (not real name) applied and went through the general selection, and was successfully enrolled. Motivated by her neighbors, friends and learners who learnt about RLP’s EFA programme, Eve is one of the most committed and dedicated learners - always punctual, organized, and with neat handwriting.

Whilst Eve requires some extra time and support, her relentless participation in our English for Adult programme challenges a number of assumptions about persons living with disabilities. Firstly, Eve affirmed that while special schools can be important in enabling persons with disabilities to attain quality education and therefore lead dignified lives, her own participation in mainstream education shows that such mainstream spaces can also offer a positive contribution in the provision of holistic and inclusive education. 

While Eve is currently being supported by a team of educationists including professional primary, secondary, and adult educators, none of our facilitators have attained specialised qualifications on special needs education. Palabek refugee settlement in particular, and Lamwo district as a whole do not have any special needs school, let alone one for adults. Refugee Law Project cherishes its Non-and-Anti-Discrimination Policy, and challenges discrimination in all forms, and at all levels. Against this background our facilitators have not hesitated to use all possible means to provide robust support to Eve and all other adult learners enrolled.

Eve’s’ enrollment into the programme was supported by her neighbors who informed her of the programme. Currently, our facilitators also work with Eve’s neighbors to support her learning and other educational needs. While the neighbors help Eve to work through her home assignments, they are also indirectly benefiting from the programme. As an institution, we can confidently affirm that expanded social networks are not only important in expanding our EFA programme, but also contribute to peaceful co-existence among refugees, and with host communities. 

Eve’s case could be unusual and uncommon but it serves as a reminder that, as we commemorate this year’s international Women’s Day, we need to acknowledge the courage that Eve and other persons in similar situation have taken to face life and to challenge what appears ‘impossible’ to many, and is often ill-supported in especially rural refugee settlements. Eve’s example has become an inspiration to many refugees and host community members, attesting as she does that “Disability is not Inability”, and demonstrating that education is not limited to and by age, and that education cannot be left behind when people are forced to leave their home country.

There are many people like Eve in Palabek refugee settlement and elsewhere who can benefit from the support of humanitarian and development workers, as well as government stakeholders. As we commemorate this years’ International Women’s Day, we appeal to all stakeholders to re-evaluate their support to persons with special needs including Eve, and to reflect on what more can be possibly  be done to ensure that all refugees in Uganda and elsewhere are empowered to achieve self-reliance, and lead dignified lives.

Our struggle to see that Eve and all other learners are Empowered to Speak, Advocate and Demand for their Rights continues, and we call upon everyone to take part, and play active roles in this struggle. 

The author works at Refugee Law Project as English for Adults Team Leader, Lamwo field office.

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