Each month, about one million people cross through checkpoints like Stanytsia Luhanska in east Ukraine. More than half are older people traveling into areas under Ukrainian control to collect social benefit payments. Between January and early April, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), at least 19 people died while crossing these checkpoints, mostly older people with heart-related complications. Ukrainian officials have voiced deep suspicion and even hostility toward this population, suggesting they are “anti-Ukrainian.” The government also forces them to register as internally displaced persons and to provide addresses in government-controlled areas – a legal fiction which often involves paying monthly fees to landlords there – and to make the difficult journey through Ukrainian crossing points at least once every 60 days. If they fail to register or cross, the authorities automatically stop paying their pension. Spend an hour in Stanytsia Luhanska and it becomes clear just how arduous these requirements are for older people. Dozens pass by in wheelchairs, while others can walk only with crutches, walkers, or canes. Some people pay up to 200 hryvnia (about US$7.60) to be ferried one half of the journey in hand-pushed carts – no small price for someone on a pension of 2000 hryvnia (US$76).

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

More than 13,500 asylum seekers remain trapped on the Greek islands in deplorable conditions as winter begins on December 21, 2017. Greece, with support from its European Union partners, should urgently transfer thousands of asylum seekers to the Greek mainland and provide them with adequate accommodation and access to fair and efficient asylum procedures.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Shantha Rau Barriga is the founding director of the disability rights division at Human Rights Watch. She leads research and advocacy on human rights abuses against persons with disabilities worldwide including: the shackling of people with psychosocial disabilities, denial of education for children with disabilities, violence against women and girls with disabilities, institutionalization of children and adults with disabilities, and the neglect of people with disabilities in humanitarian emergencies. She has worked on projects on Australia, Brazil, Central African Republic, China, Croatia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Iran, Morocco, Nepal, Peru, Russia, Serbia, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, the United States, and Zambia.  

Shantha is a founding member of the International Network of Women with Disabilities, member of the Amnesty International Advisory Group on Disability Rights, expert advisor to the Catalyst for Inclusive Education Initiative and a senior advisor to the Global Campaign for Mental Health. She also served on the UNICEF Advisory Board for the 2013 State of the World’s Children report.

Before joining Human Rights Watch, Shantha participated in the UN negotiations toward the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, working as part of a global coalition to advocate for strong protections on non-discrimination, accessibility, education, legal capacity, independent living and international monitoring. She also previously worked with UNICEF Tanzania, carrying out an assessment on children with disabilities in refugee camps in Kibondo.

Shantha received degrees from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the University of Michigan, and was a Fulbright Scholar to Austria. She speaks German and Kannada. Shantha is married and has two sons.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s blanket bans on certain age groups from going outdoors during the pandemic are not only harsh, arbitrary, and discriminatory – but also risk worsening public health outcomes.

In response to the spread of COVID-19, both entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, have imposed strict bans on anyone over 65 from leaving their home for any reason, even for a short walk, to get groceries, or go to the pharmacy.

The Federation has also banned children from going outdoors. Anyone in either age group found violating the orders may be fined. This is not theoretical; 217 people over 65 have already been fined in Republika Srpska.

These orders remain in effect until further notice in the Federation and until April 13 in Republika Srpska. As of March 27, authorities in the Federation had amended the order to allow children with disabilities to go outdoors, within 100 meters of their home, and on March 30 Republika Srpska moved to allow people over 65  to go out on Tuesdays and Fridays between 7am and 10am.

The motive behind the bans is to protect people potentially at high risk if infected and reduce the spread of COVID-19. But the bans are ill suited to achieving those goals and impose overly harsh restrictions on both age groups in a way that is ultimately arbitrary and discriminatory. The authorities in both entities should roll them back, and stop imposing punitive fines on older people and children.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is not alone in using age as a determinant for developing guidance to particular populations, but has taken it to extremes by creating a punishable offence that only certain age groups can be charged with.

The rights group Human Rights Watch has received official data showing that between March 20 and 30, police in Republika Srpska issued 217 fines to older people, and that police in the Sarajevo Canton issued 20 such fines, some to children. 

The spokesperson for the Interior Ministry in the Canton of Sarajevo said that older people who ask for permission to leave their homes in exceptional circumstances, for example, to visit a doctor, will not be fined. The spokesperson also clarified that the average fine was 500 Marks, or about 255 euros, which is higher than the average monthly pension in either the Federation [less than 420 Marks] or Republika Srpska [less than 380 Marks].

International law permits restrictions on certain rights, and at times, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, more extensive restrictions may be justified. But they still have to be evidence-based and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory. And they also need to be limited in duration, subject to review, and necessary and proportionate to achieve the objective.

The orders in Bosnia and Herzegovina do not meet these criteria. First, singling out age as the sole determinant is problematic. While older people are among those at high risk of death from COVID-19, there are also increased risks for people of any age with certain underlying health conditions. These include heart and lung diseases, including asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, liver disease, diabetes, cancer and compromised immune systems, and likely current or recent pregnancy. Growing evidence globally shows that adults across all age groups may ultimately require hospitalization if they contract COVID-19.

If the objective of the order is to protect people at high risk, limiting it to people over 65 is arbitrary. There are effective ways to prevent exposure, such as social distancing and strict hygiene including hand washing and not touching your face. Banning people from going outside is not strictly necessary.

Research also suggests that children with COVID-19 have less severe symptoms and lower mortality rates than other age groups. There is little evidence that children play a significant role in asymptomatic transmission, and there is no need to restrict their right to go outdoors, if they adhere to the same social distancing restrictions as adults.

The order can also be a burden on parents and a challenge for children if they must stay confined for extended periods of time. One mother of two boys, aged three and 11, told us: “The kids have been confined to the house for 15 days now. The boys are restless and nervous. They are bored. They sleep less. The older one has tantrums and the younger one cries more often. …I’ve always been in favour of avoiding gatherings, playrooms and parks full of children during flu season, for example. But I don’t understand why now they cannot even go out a few meters from our apartment building or get in and out of [the] car.”

Older people subject to such extreme social isolation may struggle to get food, health services and medicine, and their health and mental well-being may be harmed as a result. The daughter of a 72-year-old woman who lives alone in Zenica told us: “Fortunately, neighbours help out and make sure she has food…. [It’s] more the psychological impact. It is not easy to handle this isolation, especially for people who live alone.

“What really made me sad the other day was when mom told me: ‘If I could just go out to throw away the trash’ …How terrifying it is that it would mean something to her to be able to walk for 20 or 30 meters to the trash container!” 

Many governments in Europe and beyond are taking extraordinary measures to protect public health during the pandemic. In some cases, it will be difficult to determine whether responses are proportionate and comply with international norms. But blanket measures that impose an undue burden on certain age groups, and may in fact create other risks for them, are neither strictly necessary nor based on the best evidence.

Indeed, they can undermine public health, not least by leading other people to believe that they face minimal or no risk, or undermining the important message of other more effective preventive measures. The authorities in both entities should immediately end the system of fines and misdemeanours, revoke the current orders, and drop a criminal law approach.

Better to opt instead to require everyone to practice evidence-based measures, including social distancing, hand washing, and isolation of those who become sick or who have been exposed. Such measures, which can be monitored and reviewed as the pandemic runs its course, will help protect the right to health and prevent disease transmission without discrimination.   

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Protect Rights of People with Disabilities During COVID-19

Ensure access to information, esssential services for those most at risk.

(New York) – COVID-19 presents particular risks for many people with disabilities around the world, Human Rights Watch said today. Governments should make extra efforts to protect the rights of people with disabilities in responding to the pandemic.

“People with disabilities are among the world’s most marginalized and stigmatized even under normal circumstances,” said Jane Buchanan, deputy disability rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Without swift action by governments to include people with disabilities in their response to COVID-19, they will remain at serious risk of infection and death as the pandemic spreads.”

Globally, more than 1 billion people – roughly 15 percent of the world’s population – live with some form of disability. People who are older, people with chronic health conditions, or people with disabilities – that, for example, affect their respiratory capacity – may be at particular risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19 infection.

For others, having a disability does not by itself put them in at higher risk of infection, but they are in danger due to discrimination and barriers to information, social services, health care, social inclusion, and education.

In a rapidly evolving pandemic, information is essential for people to make decisions about how to protect themselves and how to access necessities and services during quarantine and self-isolation. Governments at all levels should be providing accurate, accessible, and timely information about the disease, prevention methods, and services.

Karen McCall, who is legally blind and is self-quarantining at her home in Ontario, Canada, said she faced obstacles in accessing information from Ontario’s Ministry of Health.

© Karen McCall

To ensure that people with disabilities are not deprived of lifesaving information, communication strategies should include qualified sign language interpretation for televised announcements, websites that are accessible to people with different disabilities, and telephone-based services that have text capabilities for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Communications should use plain language to maximize understanding.

Human Rights Watch interviewed Karen McCall who is legally blind and is self-quarantining at her home in Ontario, Canada after potentially coming into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. She said she faced obstacles in accessing information from Ontario’s Ministry of Health, as an online slideshow about staying healthy during the COVID-19 outbreak was not compatible with screen reading or magnification technology she relies on.

Governments should also consider the specific needs of people with disabilities when developing prevention strategies. For example, additional guidelines on hand washing should be developed for people with disabilities who are not able to wash their hands frequently or on their own or lack access to sufficient water for hygiene.

COVID-19 spreads rapidly and is especially dangerous to people living in close proximity to others in closed settings. Millions of adults and children with disabilities live in segregated and often overcrowded residential settings where they can face neglect, abuse, and inadequate health care. Human Rights Watch has documented abusive treatment and poor conditions in private and state institutions in Brazil, Croatia, Kazakhstan, India, Russia, and Serbia. Tens of thousands of others are shackled and locked up in faith-based or state-run facilities in Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Somaliland.

Governments should take urgent steps to move people with disabilities (who can be moved safely) out of closed institutions and similar settings and stop new admissions. Children with disabilities in residential institutions should be reunited with families wherever possible.

Governments should provide adults with disabilities with social support and services to live in the community. Inside institutions, authorities should follow strict hygiene and physical distancing and should develop visitor policies that balance the protection of residents and staff with needs for family and connection.

A man using a wheelchair is pictured washing his hands in a public water tap in Nairobi, Kenya, as a preventive measure against COVID-19, March 22, 2020.

© 2020 Dennis Sigwe/SIPA via AP Images

People with disabilities who live at home often rely on community-based social services to meet their basic daily needs, including for meals and hygiene. There are serious concerns among disability rights groups about interruption of these services. Support aides do not have personal protective equipment to minimize exposure or the spread of infection or are becoming infected themselves and require quarantine.

With policies requiring social isolating to stem the spread of coronavirus, people with psychosocial disabilities, such as anxiety or depression, may be in particular distress and may benefit from additional mental health support services. Indeed, self-isolation and quarantine could be distressing for most people in general. Government policies should ensure community-based services continue and crisis counseling programs are accessible to all. Disruption of community-based services should not result in the institutionalization of people with disabilities and older people.

Children with disabilities in many countries face barriers to accessing a quality, inclusive education. As governments close schools, many are implementing online instruction. Children with different disabilities may be excluded if online instruction is not made accessible to them, including through adapted, accessible material and communication strategies. Governments should also ensure accessible material and lesson plans are also available to students who do not have access to the internet. Without government support, parents or caregivers may struggle to provide the full range of services their children may receive in schools.

In Lebanon, for example, public and private schools have closed down and classes have moved online. Amer Makarem of the Youth Association of the Blind told Human Rights Watch that online classes and distribution of lessons are generally not accessible for students who are blind or have low vision.

COVID-19 could be catastrophic in settings such as refugee camps or other temporary camps, where people live in close proximity and often lack access to basic services. People with disabilities in places like this face severe obstacles to basic services such as shelter, water, sanitation, and medical care, including in countries like Bangladesh, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Greece, Syria, and Yemen.

Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), governments must guarantee the rights to information, health, education, and basic standard of living. The CRPD requires governments to ensure accessibility and reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities and that they can live independently in the community, with support as necessary.  

“One of the most important things governments can do to protect people with disabilities during the coronavirus pandemic is to consult with them regularly to make sure policies meet their needs,” Buchanan said. “Other catastrophes loom if millions of people are left out of the COVID-19 response.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A man wears a protective face mask as he drives a mobility scooter in central Leeds on the morning of March 21, 2020, a day after the British government said it would help cover the wages of people hit by the coronavirus outbreak as it tightened restrictions to curb the spread of the disease.

© 2016 OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

(London) – UK’s Coronavirus Act, which becomes law today, has serious implications for the rights of people with disabilities and older people, and its implementation needs to be carefully monitored to protect people’s rights to health care, education, and freedom, Human Rights Watch, the UK National Survivor User Network (NSUN), and international human rights expert Gerard Quinn, said today. 

The legislation gives the UK authorities emergency powers to address the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic and needs to be renewed by parliament every six months.

“These are unprecedented times, but weakening the safeguards in an already coercive Mental Health Act, and extending its powers, is a grave step and risks the rights of people with disabilities,” said Akiko Hart, CEO of NSUN. “Given the serious implications of the Coronavirus Act for some of the people it seeks to protect, it’s vital that the government ensure that the new law doesn’t undermine rights and do lasting harm.” 

Some emergency powers, such as restrictions on public gathering and transport, may be justified amidst the continuing spread of the disease. Additional powers, however, including detaining people suspected of being infected with COVID-19 for testing and making it easier to detain people on mental health grounds, create the potential for violations to fundamental human rights.

The new law will likely worsen the situation of people with disabilities in an already difficult context, the groups said, especially given cuts in social care and disability benefits and existing abuses against people with disabilities.

The law changes mental health assessments in England and Wales, lowering the threshold for detention on mental health grounds (known as sectioning), by requiring only one doctor’s recommendation. The Mental Health Capacity Act requires two doctors’ recommendations, which provides at least some safeguards against abuse of power.

Mental health advocates, including the National Survivor User Network, have raised a number of other concerns.

The new law extends time limits on detaining people in a mental health setting and removes the requirement of a second opinion for individuals forced to take psychiatric medication against their will under the Mental Health Act.

Currently the Care Quality Commission receives about 16,000 requests for formal second opinions every year, and in 2018-19 changed treatment plans in 29 percent of their requests. Removing these safeguards in relation to consent to treatment may be in breach of Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.

The weakened detention safeguards are likely to disproportionately impact people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. A 2019 independent review of mental health legislation found members of BAME communities are overrepresented in detention, have longer than average lengths of stay in psychiatric hospitals, and are eight times more likely to be subject to involuntary outpatient treatment.

The emergency law also relaxes the rules and standards for social care services and supports, essentially suspending the Care Act 2014 duties in England to assess and arrange services to meet the needs of adults with disabilities and their careers. This would significantly impact older people, people with learning disabilities, and other people with disabilities who are living in the community. Further, local authorities would no longer have to comply with care and support plans once people with disabilities are discharged from residential facilities, leaving them at risk of neglect at home.

“Support for thousands of people with disabilities and older people does not need to be sacrificed to fight the current COVID-19 crisis,” said Shantha Rau Barriga, director of Disability Rights at Human Rights Watch. “These are the groups among the most at risk in this pandemic; they should not also be at risk because of the response.”

States can take extraordinary measures to limit some rights in the name of public health and emergencies threatening the life of a nation. But such measures need to be strictly necessary and proportionate to meet the situation, and at no times should be arbitrary or discriminatory. The fundamental rights of detainees should also always be protected even in emergencies.

NSUN, together with Human Rights Watch and Professor Quinn, are calling for the UK to establish clear mechanisms to monitor the impact on rights of the weakened safeguards in mental health legislation and suspension of the elements of the Care Act. These should set out the duty to support those in need of care and to report to the UK Parliament every three months. That reporting should be assessed by the UK Parliament if it is asked to renew the legislation.

“Emergencies demand a tailored and efficient response. But there are limits, including trampling on existing rights and protections, especially for groups at higher risk of COVID such as people with disabilities and older people,” said Gerard Quinn, professor of law at the University of Leeds and at the Wallenberg Institute in the University of Lund, Sweden. “If we are not careful, such emergency measures can become Trojan horses to needlessly erode established protections.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Carlos Rios, on the right and making a funny face, with his buddies at Camp Harmon in 1975.

© 1975 Private

When I was 4 months old, I got polio, and since then I’ve been a wheelchair user. When I was 10, in 1975, my parents found a summer camp for children with disabilities in California and decided it would be a good experience for me.

Summer camp showed me there was a wider world outside my family and that I was able to navigate it. That summer came back to me when I saw the documentary film Crip Camp, which is slated to start streaming on Netflix on March 25 and which is also featured in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

The film traces the birth of the US disability rights movement to a unique summer camp, Camp Jened, managed by people with disabilities like Judy Heumann and members of the ‘60s countercultural movement. Camp Jened provided a space for self-discovery for many teenagers and young adults with disabilities – a place where they could share common concerns and stories about living with a disability in a predominantly able-bodied world.

Above all, they learned how to love themselves and be proud.

It was in part through this space that a group of Americans with disabilities decided to advocate for their rights, putting political pressure on state and federal authorities. Eventually, this movement led to the passage of the groundbreaking Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

This legislation influenced movements worldwide and inspired many of the main principles in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted in 2006. Hundreds of people with disabilities from many countries were key in drafting this treaty, in the spirit of the movement’s motto: “Nothing about us without us.”  

The film made me realize the importance of building spaces for people with disabilities to organize. We need a strong community of people with disabilities who both embrace themselves and are ready to fight for our place in society, to make our voices heard and respected. This is not easy, as Crip Camp shows.

Governments and civil society need to promote political spaces for people with disabilities for them to build self-awareness and empowerment. My experience in summer camp in 1975 lasted only two weeks – I wished I had more spaces like that throughout my life. Generations of people with disabilities around the world will surely profit from looking at this US experience.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

People wait in a temporary detention center in Blackpool, Quebec, August 5, 2017. 

© Getty Images

What does the COVID-19 pandemic mean for the hundreds of immigration detainees across Canada? Fear.

“Everyone is just scared,” a man in his 30s, detained in the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre, told Human Rights Watch. “People are especially afraid of the guards because they come in and out, and we know there was at least one (Canada Border Services Agency) officer who caught it. People are depressed and anxious.”

All immigration detainees are held on non-criminal grounds, and the vast majority are not considered to be a safety risk. Yet they’re held in prison-like conditions.

These detainees face significant risks to their physical and mental health if there’s an outbreak of COVID-19 in immigration holding centres and maximum-security provincial jails across the country. Detainees are forced into close proximity with others in facilities that tend to have poor ventilation, lack hygiene products, and provide limited access to medical care. While immigration holding centres are designated for immigration detainees, they resemble medium-security prisons, where detainees are subjected to constant surveillance and strict rules and routines.  The man detained in the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre told us that at least one guard has been coughing continuously for the entirety of his nightshift while he was making rounds among detainees.

Although Canada is obligated under international law to ensure that immigration detainees have access to medical care that is at least equivalent to the care available for the general population, a 2019 report on the state of Ontario’s jails found that “Correctional facilities are not equipped to provide consistent, equitable, or high-quality health care.” Under these conditions, it is impossible to practise the social distancing that the government is urging everyone to adopt.

Without a countdown to their date of release, no access to meaningful mental health and rehabilitation services, and under the constant threat of deportation, immigration detainees’ mental health often deteriorates.

An already debilitating situation is made worse by the looming threat of a COVID-19 outbreak. As of March 13, the Ontario provincial government barred personal visits to provincial jails, which also house immigration detainees. Moving forward, only professional visits – such as by lawyers – are permitted. Federally run immigration holding centres have instituted the same policy. But further isolating detainees by barring visits from family and friends has repercussions on the wellbeing of the detainees, many of whom already have mental health conditions.

On March 17, Catalina Devandas, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, echoed these concerns: “The situation of people with disabilities in institutions, psychiatric facilities and prisons is particularly grave, given the high risk of contamination and the lack of external oversight, aggravated by the use of emergency powers for health reasons.”

The federal government should take meaningful steps to prevent transmission in detention facilities across the country. Since March 13, the Ontario provincial government has allowed low-risk inmates who serve time only on weekends to return home. Immigration detention is not for the purpose of punishment but rather to ensure that a deportation can be executed; if removals are halted for public health or other reasons, the lawful basis for immigration detention evaporates and detainees should be released.

In any case, authorities should release immigration detainees who pose no public safety risk, and prioritize the release of those who are at a high risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19, such as people with disabilities and older persons.

“Our lives are being put at risk,” the man in immigration detention told us, “in a place where we already struggle to cope.” The government should take the necessary measures to stop a preventable human catastrophe.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The single-story Life Care Center, a facility in Kirkland, Washington, March 18, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Last week, in response to the spread of the coronavirus, the United States Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the regulator for over 15,000 nursing homes in the US, announced a “no visitors” policy for all facilities across the country. The blanket ban cuts off over 1.5 million older residents from family and friends, with limited exceptions for end-of-life visits.

Having limits on visitors to nursing homes is reasonable, given that the virus has disproportionate effects on older people and those with underlying conditions, and the guidance properly reinforces the importance of proper infection control.

But a broad visitor ban doesn’t take into account the serious risks that can come from social isolation. Instead of imposing a blanket ban with no foreseeable end, CMS could put in place measures being used in other settings to keep residents and nursing facility staff safe. For example, it could restrict visitors who are sick, as many facilities already do, limit the number of visitors per day, strictly supervise visitors’ handwashing and masking, have a dedicated room for visiting, and ensure visitors maintain a safe distance from others.

Beyond the possibility of health risks from social isolation, a 2018 Human Rights Watch report documenting abuses in nursing homes across the US found that people who are on their own, without family or friends visiting or communicating with the facility staff, and who have language barriers or disabilities that make communication between them and others difficult, are some of the most at risk for worse treatment. With visiting restrictions equally applying to ombudsman programs, adult protective services, and individuals’ doctors, there will be far less contact with residents, limiting the ability to identify when things go wrong.

Human Rights Watch also documented routine denial of older people’s rights to make decisions for themselves. This ban amplifies that harm. If an older person were receiving services and support at home rather than in a nursing facility, they could choose whether to have visitors. For those in institutions, CMS is making the choice to cut them off.

CMS should amend the current policy recognizing the risk of social isolation and identify how nursing homes can balance the protection of older and at-risk residents with their needs for family and connection.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

"I am grateful for help. But sometimes it’s hard ... The attitude here is: if you want to be left in peace, go back home. But where is home? Everyone who could, who had a place to go, had already left."

The ongoing war in eastern Ukraine has divided people’s lives there into “before” and “after.” For Iryna, “before” was living independently in her own flat in Donetsk region. Life was not easy, but she had a network of friends she could rely on to help.

Hallway of Sviati Hory recreational facility, October 2019.

© Human Rights Watch

In 2015, when Sviatlodarsk came under heavy shelling, Iryna was alone in her apartment unable to flee until a group of volunteers from a local church helped her evacuate, carrying her out of the building where she lived on the fourth floor:

“When the explosions started, many people on my street left. I was alone, couldn’t even get to a bomb shelter. They [volunteers] came to my house and picked me up by arms and legs. They carried me outside in their arms. They saved my life.”

Thus began Iryna’s “after,” where she was forced to leave her home and relocate to a “collective center” – an emergency accommodation for people fleeing the conflict.  

I met Iryna in the town of Sviatohirsk, in government-controlled territory, in late October 2019. My colleague and I spoke with her in Sviati Hory, a former recreational facility that now accommodates people displaced by the war. This privately-owned facility has a nondescript, five-story building that has become a temporary home to 190 people – most of them with physical disabilities. Iryna has been living there since 2015 and, although her life is no longer in immediate danger due to indiscriminate shelling or landmines, she and other residents continue to face severe obstacles accessing basic services and health care. For them, every day is a struggle.

The war in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed armed groups started in 2014 and continues today. It has displaced close to 1.5 million people. Displacement happened in waves, as hostilities spread through Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Many people fled to nearby cities and towns, hoping the fighting would soon stop and they would be able to return home. Others traveled further, to central, western, or southern Ukraine.

Evacuation and support services were often not accessible for people with disabilities and older people, who, throughout the years since 2014, have had little say in their relocation.

To address fast-growing displacement, local authorities in conflict-affected areas came up with solutions for emergency accommodations for the displaced. Many were set up in 2014 and 2015 in former resorts, hotels, churches, recreation centers, and similar spaces. Today, displaced people are still living in some of these facilities, even though they were meant for seasonal rather than long-term, year-round use. Many, like Sviati Hory, do not have adequate water and heating services and were not designed to be accessible for people with disabilities. Some have no ramps, accessible showers, toilets, or working elevators. And while most displaced people were able to take advantage of these facilities as a temporary solution for a short period of time and move on, many people with disabilities had no choice but to remain in them, some for years.

Natalia Stazilova is a project coordinator with Slavic Heart, a charitable foundation that distributes humanitarian aid and provides crucial psychological and legal services to displaced people. She told me that 70 percent of current residents of Sviati Hory have physical disabilities. Most residents had permanent housing in the past, which was either damaged or destroyed in the conflict or is located in dangerous areas close to hostilities. Stazilova, her colleagues, and other local and international groups providing assistance to displaced persons also said that as the fighting became less intense, international aid organizations narrowed their focus to providing humanitarian assistance to the 20 kilometer-wide area along the 500 kilometer “line of contact” that separates the warring parties. This has left gaps in assistance and protection for people living farther away from the line of contact but still impacted by the conflict, like Iryna and the other residents of Sviati Hory.

“These people are abandoned. Nobody wants them,” Stazilova said.

A bathroom in one of the rooms at Sviati Hory. Many bathrooms have narrow doors or high threshholds and are not wheelchair-accessible. October 2019.

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

According to the latest United Nations aid agency’s overview of humanitarian needs in eastern Ukraine, 1.1 million older people and 416,000 people with disabilities are among the 5 groups bearing the heaviest brunt of the conflict. The document notes “lack of access to basic services” among the main humanitarian concerns.

These concerns are visible and deeply felt by people with disabilities who live at Sviati Hory. As my colleague and I were able to witness, everyday life is extremely difficult and they face great obstacles accessing even the most basic things, like toilets, showers, adequate medical care, public transportation, and accommodations allowing them to move around independently within the facility.

Living Conditions in Sviati Hory

“Things were very hard for me here from the beginning,” said. Iryna. “When I first got here, they had no ramps, no way to get around in a wheelchair. Last winter, there was no heating here at all. It was 7-8 degrees Celsius (44 degrees Fahrenheit) in our rooms. I had to

keep my portable stove on the whole time so that I didn’t freeze.”

The facility has only 1 shower for its 190 residents and it is not accessible to people using wheelchairs because of a high threshold between the hallway and the shower area. A boiler was installed in the shower several months ago, but there is no heating in the shower room and no hot running water in the rest of the building. The building now has heating, but the administration sometimes keeps it at a low setting which can make people with limited or no mobility and older people, who tend to be more sensitive to cold, feel uncomfortable.

All of the 17 people with disabilities we interviewed at Sviati Hory had been there for three years or longer and had similar concerns: lack of heating and hot water, difficulty getting medications, not having enough money for food, and no place to cook it. The building now has ramps, but those who use wheelchairs spoke about difficulty getting around and the lack of a working elevator.

Yana is 44 and is looking after her 5-year-old son and a 64-year-old mother who has a spinal cord injury and cannot move her lower limbs. “We have a bath day every Wednesday. This is what it looks like: I boil water in an electric kettle, fill a small basin, put it right here on this bed and wash everyone with a washcloth,” Yana said. She also said that there is only one washing machine for the entire facility.

Common laundry room next to the shower area at Sviati Hory. The facility only has one shower for 190 people. The shower room does not have heating and, as residents told us, gets very cold for most of the year. October 2019.

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

Alla, 60, is sharing a room with her daughter, Lyubov, who is legally blind, and her 18-year-old granddaughter, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Their family has been living in Sviati Hory since 2016. “It’s very, very tough for us here,” said Alla. “No food is provided, [yet] we can’t cook anything, there is only one shower for all of us, but the shower area is not heated so it is freezing in the winter. We can only bathe my granddaughter once a month.”

Psychological Trauma, Lack of Support

Persons with disabilities often face unique barriers attempting to flee to safety in an armed conflict. When fighting intensified in eastern Ukraine, the evacuation process fell mostly on the shoulders of nongovernmental associations and groups for people with disabilities. According to Viktoria Nazarenko, secretary general of the National Assembly for People with Disabilities and Nadezhda Palamarchuk, head of Donetsk Group for People with Disabilities, civil society groups that organized evacuations for people with disabilities did not receive any state help, and did not get “a single hryvnia” from the state.

The people we spoke with at Sviati Hory told us they’ve experienced trauma and stress from the chaotic evacuation process, from having been exposed to the fighting, and from losing the support network they had at home. Lyubov, who is 36 and is almost blind, said:

"They evacuated us from Makeevka at the very last moment, on August 12, 2014. They said if we didn’t leave immediately, we were going to die. There were explosions all around. They [staff from a local NGO centre for persons with disabilities] brought us to a train station but the trains had stopped running. I will never forget how all of us were lying on the train platform for a long time, right on the ground, face down."

Many residents spoke of being lonely and having no community with which to socialize, feeling isolated and trapped. I particularly remember Sasha, 61, telling me about his passion for dancing. Before the war, he participated in and organized wheelchair dancing competitions in Donetsk. “I had so many friends,” he said, sitting on the bed in his small room, his wheelchair with red flames painted on it standing next to him. “People asked me to organize dancing events. I was having a blast, I was doing what I loved, despite having one leg. And now I am in a rut. I feel like I am slowly wasting away.”

Difficulties with Accessibility

Alla and her family in their room at Sviati Hory, October 2019.

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

Sviati Hory has almost no accommodations for people with disabilities. Many residents can only get around in a wheelchair. The building has an elevator, but when we were there, it wasn’t working. Some of the people we spoke with said it has always been broken, others said that the management simply didn’t turn it on. Yulia, 65, spoke about “enormous difficulties” her husband faces when he needs to use the bathroom because his wheelchair can’t get over the high threshold between the room where they are staying and the bathroom. She also said. “They have an elevator, but they don’t turn it on.”

Lena, 47, has 2 daughters. One is a child who has cerebral palsy. Lena’s older daughter, who is 18, has spinal muscular atrophy. Lena said:

“Before the war, we had a house that was outfitted for the needs of our children. My older daughter could feel more independent there. Here my husband can’t work because I can’t take care of my daughter alone. He helps me pick her up to take her to the toilet, turn her over during sleep, help wash her. Out toilet is too narrow for the wheelchair to fit through the door, so we have to carry her everywhere.”

Medical Services, Schools, Access to Transportation

Many residents told us that because the facility is so remote, they can’t easily access medical help. A nearest hospital is located in Sloviansk, approximately 36 kilometers away, and there is no accessible mode of transportation available for people with disabilities.

There are only three family doctors in Sviatohirsk. All undiagnosed patients or those with serious illnesses are referred to the hospital in Sloviansk. From time to time, medical specialists visit Sviatohirsk, but residents told us that it’s hard to predict when a certain specialist will come and “next to impossible” to get an appointment.  

Sasha, 61, resident of Sviati Hory, October 2019.

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

Lena described her family’s experience:

“Last winter, my daughter spilled boiling water on herself in the middle of the night and we called the family doctor. The doctor took two days to arrive and when she got here, she scolded us for not treating her wounds better.… There is no pediatrician here or other medical specialists. From time to time, a neurologist comes from Sloviansk. Occasionally a surgeon. Sometimes an ear, nose, and throat doctor.… In any case, there are only ten coupons available for each specialist and that is for the entire city, not just people with disabilities, so it’s next to impossible to get an appointment. Sometimes you get a coupon, but the doctor doesn’t come, and you have to wait for another month. Sometimes no [specialist] doctors come at all for several months.”

Lena’s younger daughter and other children who use wheelchairs and live at Sviati Hory do not go to school because the local school does not have ramps for wheelchairs. Instead, teachers from the local school come to the facility.    

Sasha also described his difficulties accessing quality health care. He said that a doctor told him to see a neurologist several months ago, but he could not find any transportation to get to his appointment – he cannot afford a taxi, and the bus that goes from Sviatohirsk to Sloviansk is not accessible to wheelchair users. Sasha had to call an ambulance once, when kidney failure caused him acute pain. The ambulance took more than one hour to arrive and left after giving him a shot for the pain. He later had to make his own arrangements to go to the hospital for treatment. He said “Sometimes it feels like this: if we all get sick and start dying off one by one, no one will come to help.”

Iryna told us that in order to obtain a medical certificate necessary to purchase her medications at a special discount rate for people with disabilities, she has to go to Sloviansk. Because she can only move around in a wheelchair, she can’t use the bus and the cost of taxi is prohibitively high – 400 hryvnas one-way (approximately US$16). Iryna’s pension is 1564 hryvnias (approximately $63) and she spends around one-third of that on medications. If she gets sick, Iryna can call a family doctor who can consult with her over the phone, call an ambulance, or ask a volunteer from Slavic Heart to drive her to a hospital.

Lyubov said:

"My daughter has cerebral palsy. She can’t hold her head up and needs to be propped up or wear a brace the whole time. She also has epileptic seizures. She needs specialized care, but none is available here. The closest place to get such care is in Kharkiv (approximately 170 kilometers from Sviatohirsk), but we can’t get there anyway. When she gets ill, we call a doctor, who might even make a house call, but it is not going to be a specialist, just a regular therapist. And nothing here is adjusted for our needs. For example, right now she has a sore throat and needs an inhalation treatment, but I can’t even set that up in this room."

Threat of Eviction and Invasion of Privacy

People with disabilities living in Sviati Hory pay between 500 and 1300 hryvnas (approximately $45-50) in rent to the administration of the facility. The local authorities pay for utilities, including electricity and heating.

Elena Mikhailovna, 66, and Varya, 11 Sviati Hory, October 2019.

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

Many people I spoke to said the facility’s administration frequently threatened to evict them, either claiming that their rooms were not clean enough or after they complained about lack of heating, the lack of a working elevator, or other issues. They also said that the administration frequently intruded into their rooms, which made them feel unsafe and unwelcome.

“The manager can come in at any time to check your room,” Alla, 60, told me. “There is no vacuum cleaner, but they demand we keep our rooms clean. If your toilet seat is slightly dirty, they can immediately bring you papers telling you that you are getting evicted.”

Yana, 44, echoed that: “The administrator can barge in at any time and start looking around, doesn’t matter if you are busy or asleep. They treat us here like third-class people – not even second, but third.”

People spoke wishfully about returning home but did not consider it a real possibility, due to lack of safety or because their houses or apartment blocks had been damaged or destroyed. 

Lena said: “I really wish we could return home – but only if things were the way they were before we left.”

What Can Be Done

Sviati Hory is just one example of a collective center providing shelter and other assistance to displaced persons. There are more than 200 such centers around the country.

The internally displaced people living in them have the same human rights as everyone else in Ukraine and enjoy the same protection as other civilians under international humanitarian law. Under international standards, the Ukrainian government has a responsibility to provide displaced people with protection and humanitarian assistance: food and water, shelter and clothing, essential medical services. They should be protected from inhumane and degrading treatment.  Under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Ukraine has an obligation to ensure people with disabilities have equal access to transport, the physical environment, information and communications, and other facilities and services that are open or provided to the public. Children with disabilities have the right to inclusive and quality education with their peers.

To Elena, 66, who lives with her 11-year-old granddaughter with cerebral palsy, these rights seemed utterly remote. “We live like we are homeless” she said.

For Elena and everyone else at Sviati Hory, a good start in making these rights a reality would be for the authorities to consult meaningfully with residents there and ensure that they have access to heating and essential health services, accessible water and sanitation facilities, adaptable home environments, accessible transportation, and inclusive schools. The authorities should ensure that the administration of the Sviati Hory facility respect the rights of its residents. With these steps, they can help connect the “befores” and the “afters” for everyone living there. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

US Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie delivers remarks during a conference with federal, state and local veterans leaders in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, November 15, 2018 in Washington, DC.

© 2020 Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Update: Subsequent to publication, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services’ guidance, and the nursing facility industry’s standards have changed.

This week the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced a “no visitors” policy at its 134 nursing homes in response to the spread of the coronavirus, a decision that cuts off its annual 40,000-plus residents from families and friends. 

The risk to older people who get COVID-19 is serious and there is still much uncertainty about the disease. But this blanket policy flies in the face of public health guidance, which doesn’t call on nursing facilities to close themselves off entirely.

Without a doubt, some limits on visitors are reasonable, given that the virus has disproportionate effects on older people. Eighty percent of those who have died of COVID-19 in China were over the age of 60.

But the VA’s sweeping visitor ban fails to take into account the serious risks that can come from social isolation.  

It means an older person with dementia cannot see a loved one, possibly the only person they remember. A 2018 Human Rights Watch report documenting abuses in nursing homes found that people who are on their own, without family or friends visiting or communicating with the facility staff, and who have language barriers or disabilities that make communication between them and others difficult, are some of the most at risk for worse treatment. Visitors help to point out when things are wrong.

Instead of imposing a blanket ban with no foreseeable end, the VA could take less extreme measures to keep residents safe from COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services’ guidance, and even the nursing facility industry’s standards appear to better balance the risks of the disease and the problems of social isolation. They each call for bans on visitors who are sick or who have been or likely have been exposed to COVID-19.

The VA could even go further, for example supervising visitors’ handwashing and limiting numbers of visitors per day, conducting heightened screenings of visitors for symptoms, or requiring visitors to keep distances or even wear gloves and masks.

The VA should repeal its visitor ban and replace it with a policy that balances the protection of older and at-risk residents with their need for family and connection.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A girl with a disability in the walled yard of an institution for people with disabilities in Rio de Janeiro.

© 2016 Human Rights Watch

This week, Brazil’s Congress overturned a presidential veto and reinstated legislation expanding access to an important monthly social pension, the Benefício de Prestação Continuada (BPC). Guaranteed under Brazil’s constitution, the BPC is granted to persons with disabilities and older people who cannot support themselves independently or with assistance from their families and is equivalent to the federal monthly minimum wage. President Bolsonaro had vetoed the bill improving access to the BPC.

According to available data, as of June 2019, 4.5 million low-income people received the BPC, including 2.5 million people with disabilities. This week’s reform will likely increase the number of people with disabilities and older people eligible to receive this key financial benefit.

As the government expands the BPC, it should also ensure people with disabilities living in institutions can receive it and have control over spending it. In a 2018 report, Human Rights Watch found that many people with disabilities living in institutions who receive the BPC are not able to manage it directly because they have been deprived of legal capacity, or the right to make decisions for themselves. Some people with disabilities who are institutionalized cannot access this benefit, even when they are entitled. Instead of having in place support mechanisms for people with disabilities to decide what to do with their benefit, institution directors, who act as guardians of people living there, often manage these resources at their discretion, without transparency or accountability.

The government should therefore conduct a comprehensive review to ensure all persons with disabilities living in institutions who are eligible to receive the BPC can receive and manage this benefit themselves with appropriate support and oversight mechanisms. Federal, state, and municipal authorities should also use the BPC benefit to help support people to live independently. This should be accompanied by plans to move people with disabilities out of institutions and ensure they can decide where and with whom to live in the community, instead of being compelled, because lack of options, to live in institutions.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The Democratic Republic of Congo is on track to pass its first law on the rights of people with disabilities, which could improve the lives of millions of people across the country.

Congo is home to millions of people with disabilities. There is now hope their rights will be recognized.

© 2013 John Bompengo/Radio Okapi

Congo’s first minister for people with disabilities, Irène Esambo, herself a woman with a disability, is currently working on a bill expected to go through Parliament this year. After years of groundwork and advocacy with civil society groups she is determined to see a disability rights law become reality.

Last week, Esambo gathered government officials, members of parliament, civil society activists, United Nations officials, and international partners – including Human Rights Watch – to discuss the contents of the bill. It addresses the rights to education, employment, and health care for people with disabilities, as well as protection from abuse and discrimination.

“Every person with a disability and civil society groups working on disability issues should be reassured because the ministry sees them as allies in this struggle,” Esambo said during the meeting.

The bill was first introduced in Parliament by an opposition member of parliament, Eve Bazaiba, several years ago, but was never adopted. She returned it for consideration last year. Congo’s Constitution states that people with disabilities are “entitled to specific protective measures” and calls for the adoption of a disability rights law. In 2015, Congo ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Congo is home to millions of people with disabilities. Many of them face human rights abuses and discrimination, often limiting their access to education and employment. Some, mostly children, face accusations of witchcraft, as disability can be considered a curse by certain beliefs.

Multiple humanitarian crises in Congo, with more than five million internally displaced people according to the UN, compound the challenges and risks for people with disabilities. Quite often they are abandoned or face neglect in the aid response.

With Esambo taking the lead in bringing the disability rights bill forward, there is now real hope that the rights of Congolese people with disabilities will finally be recognized and protected.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Relatives post a photo of Fatima, a 7-year-old girl who was abducted from the entrance of the Enrique C. Rebsamen primary school and later murdered, at her home in Mexico City, February 17, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Marco Ugarte

On February 11, 7-year-old Fátima Cecilia went missing after school in Mexico City. Five days later, on February 15, authorities found her body which bore signs of torture. Fatima had been kidnapped, raped, and murdered.

Yet in the aftermath of this brutal crime, Mexico City’s General Prosecutor chose to reveal during a radio interview that Fátima’s mother has a “mental illness.” He raised the issue after Fatima’s mother told police the name of the man she believed to be behind her daughter’s death and the General Prosecutor said the accused man has in fact been dead for some time.

Highlighting Fátima’s bereaved mother’s actual or perceived disability appears unnecessary and unfair at this tragic moment, when authorities’ attention should be on identifying and prosecuting the person who committed this uniquely shocking crime.   

Stigmatizing people for their disability can send a harmful message that those with mental health conditions might be dangerous and cannot be good parents.  

People with mental health conditions have the right to raise a family, just like everyone else. Instead of pointing to the real or alleged characteristics of victims, the government should be ensuring that people with mental health conditions have the support they need to let them be the best parents they can.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

We write in advance of the pre-sessional Working Group for the 77th session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (“the Committee”) relating to South Africa’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (“CEDAW”).

  1. Protection of Sex workers (Articles 6 and 12)

Selling and buying sex in South Africa is illegal. The criminalisation of sex work has not deterred mostly poor, black and economically marginalized South African women from selling sex to make a living and support their children, and often other dependents too. Criminalisation in South Africa has, however, made sex work less safe, made sex workers more vulnerable to exploitation and crimes and meant that sex workers are less likely to report trafficking for fear of recrimination. Criminalisation undermines sex workers’ access to justice for crimes committed against them and exposes them to unchecked abuse and exploitation by law enforcement officials, including police officers. And although the Department of Health’s national strategy on sex work and HIV is grounded in respect for the human rights of sex workers, outreach and non-discrimination, criminalisation hinders sex workers’ efforts to access health care, including HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

Human Rights Watch’s 2018 report documented violence experienced by sex workers in South Africa, and their difficulties in reporting crimes and creating safe places to work. We interviewed 46 female sex workers in 10 interview sites in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and Gauteng provinces. We also interviewed more than 40 lawyers, health workers and others working to provide services to this vulnerable population as well as representatives from the South African government.[1]

Sex workers described facing frequent arbitrary arrests and police profiling as well as coerced sex and extortion. They said that to avoid police harassment they were compelled to work in dangerous areas like dark parks, bushy areas behind bars, or back roads in towns where they felt unsafe. Sex workers also said that they often did not report crimes against them because they feared arrest or harassment. Some chose not to report out of fear that the police would laugh at them, blame them, or take no action. Many of the interviewees had been raped by men purporting to be clients, and almost all had been victims of robbery or serious violence, including being beaten, whipped, and stabbed.

Health workers and health rights activists interviewed said that criminalisation obstructs efforts to prevent and treat HIV infections among sex workers. Outreach workers from clinics providing services to sex workers have been arrested and police have relied on sex workers’ possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution, discouraging them from carrying them. Some sex workers also reported that arrest and detention interrupted their essential HIV treatment.[2]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call upon the government of South Africa to:

  • Introduce a new law to parliament that removes criminal and administrative sanctions against consensual adult sex work and related offences, such as solicitation, and current prohibited practices such as “living off the earnings” of prostitution or brothel-keeping;
  • Recommend municipal governments reform or repeal overly broad by-laws prohibiting vague offences such as loitering and being a “public nuisance” so they can no longer be used to target vulnerable groups, including sex workers;
  • Implement an immediate moratorium on arrests of sex workers, including for loitering, indecent exposure and other misdemeanours;
  • Publicly commit to strict nationwide enforcement of provisions that prohibit torture, arbitrary arrests and detentions, police brutality, coerced confessions or telling detainees to sign “admissions of guilt” paperwork without fully explaining the content;
  • Ensure police training and awareness-building on human rights and sex worker rights under international and South African law, tolerance and sensitive and non-discriminatory policing is carried out regularly and rigorously. This training should include on the correct protocol of arrest and police detention and also non-discrimination concerning crimes reported by sex workers.
  1. Girls’ Access to Education (Articles 10 and 12)

Insufficient Protections for Pregnant Students and Adolescent Mothers

South Africa has had a policy on the prevention and management of student pregnancies since 2007, which states that school children who are pregnant shall not be unfairly discriminated against and cannot be expelled.[3] However, research by South African NGOs indicates that this policy has not been fully respected by schools, and schools have often discriminated against female students.[4] Research conducted by South African organisations shows that some school officials continue to exclude pregnant girls from school or ask them to shift to other schools, contradicting their obligations to respect student’s right to compulsory education.[5]

In 2018, the government initiated a consultation to develop a new policy on management and prevention of student pregnancies.[6] This new policy has not yet been released at time of writing this submission.[7] Human Rights Watch recommends that the government removes any conditional measures–currently applied through the government’s 2007 policy—that impact on girls’ education or deter them from going back to school. For example, students should not have to wait a conditional period until they can return to school.[8]

The new policy should ensure that pregnant students can stay in school while they are medically able to, and that they return to school as soon as they are ready. Schools should also provide basic accommodations for adolescent parents, including: time to breastfeed during breaks, and time off in case a student’s child is ill or to comply with other medical or bureaucratic requirements.[9]

Through its policy, the government should communicate a clear obligation on all education establishments to respect girls’ right to stay in school. Schools should not be able to block a student’s return to school.

We welcome the Department of Basic Education’s commitment, expressed in this draft policy, to focus both on prevention and management of pregnancies. The government should act on its commitment to provide access to an age-appropriate, scientifically accurate sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR), and ensure it is-embedded in its comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) curriculum.[10] The government’s new policy should stipulate the mandatory nature of this curriculum, and should specify that learners will have access to comprehensive sexuality education from primary school, in line with international guidance.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee pose the following questions to the government of South Africa:

  • What steps will the government take to fully guarantee, in law and policy, pregnant students and adolescent parents’ right to education?
  • What measures will the government adopt to fully support pregnant students and adolescent parents’ retention in school?
  • How will the government ensure provincial governments’ and schools’ compliance with its forthcoming policy on pregnancy management and prevention in schools?
  • How does the government ensure that its compulsory sexuality education curriculum complies with international standards, and how does it ensure that teachers are trained in its contents, and allocate time to teach it?

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call upon the government of South Africa to:

  • Encourage the government to adopt a human rights compliant policy that guarantees pregnant girls’ and adolescent parents’ right to education and includes basic accommodations to ensure parents are supported to stay in school. The government should regularly monitor this policy to ensure schools adhere to its provisions.

Discrimination in Education for Children with Disabilities

An estimated 600,000 children with disabilities remain out of school in South Africa, but the government has not published accurate, disaggregated data that shows exactly how many girls and boys with disabilities are out of school.[11]

The high cost of education, including school fees and other school-related costs, continues to be a significant barrier keeping children with disabilities out of school. South Africa does not guarantee the right to free primary or secondary education to all children in law or practice.[12] Research by Human Rights Watch in 2014 and 2015 found that the current fee-based system particularly discriminates against children with disabilities.[13] It results in many children with disabilities paying school fees that many children without disabilities do not, as well as additional costs, such as for uniforms, food, transport, and to secure reasonable accommodations for the child’s disability.[14]

South Africa’s Schools Act mandates that the state fund public schools on an equitable basis.[15] The government in turn requires that the governing bodies of public schools—made up of teachers, parents, and other community representatives—adopt a resolution for a school to charge fees and supplement a school’s funding “by charging school fees and doing other reasonable forms of fund-raising.”[16]

Public schools may be classified as “no-fee” schools, a status granted to public schools by provincial governments, which means that those schools should not charge fees. The “no-fee” designation is based on the “economic level of the community around the school,” and on a quintile system from poorest to richest, whereby the lowest three quintiles do not pay fees in designated public schools.[17]

The government treats public special schools differently from other public schools. Special schools are still not listed in the national government’s publicly available annual “no-fee” schools lists. In 2019, Human Rights Watch found that, for the first time, Gauteng province listed 5 special schools as “no-fee” out of 128 special schools in the whole province. The Western Cape province’s 2017 “no-fee” schools list excluded all special schools.[18]

Although a high number of students in special schools come from townships and predominantly poor areas of towns, many public special schools in urban areas are located in wealthier suburbs previously inaccessible to the majority of children under apartheid.[19] The income level of surrounding communities and locations means many special schools fail the “needs” or “poverty” test used to assess a school’s access to recurrent public funding or to qualify as a “no-fee” school.[20]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee pose the following questions to the government of South Africa:

  • How many children with disabilities remain out of school, and how many are girls?
  • What measures has the government adopted to ensure children with disabilities have access to free quality inclusive education, on an equal basis with children without disabilities, particularly in rural and remote areas? How do those measures respond to girls with disabilities needs?
  • What binding measures has the government taken to ensure provincial governments respect and fulfill the right to inclusive education of children with disabilities?
  • What steps has the government taken to ensure legislation and policy reflect the government’s obligation to provide free education, and its obligation to provide reasonable accommodation to allow children with disabilities to access education without discrimination?
  • Will the government adopt legislation providing specific protections to children with disabilities and guaranteeing inclusive education?

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call upon the government of South Africa to:

  • Urge the government to disclose robust, disaggregated data on the number of children with disabilities out of school.
  • Urge the government to ensure access to free and compulsory primary education and to secondary education to children with disabilities, including by developing a detailed plan of action for the immediate realization of free compulsory primary education, in line with its responsibilities under international human rights law.
  • Call upon the government to adopt stronger legal protections for children with disabilities to complement the South African Schools Act. This includes a clear duty to provide reasonable accommodation in public ordinary schools, accompanied by specific provisions that prevent the rejection of students with disabilities from schools in their neighborhood.
  1. Targeting of Women Activists (Articles 2(c), 3 and 14)

Community activists in mining areas in South Africa face harassment, intimidation, and violence. The attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilize to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants. When police are informed of attacks or threats, they sometimes fail to conduct timely or adequate investigations into the incidents. According to Human Rights Watch’s 2019 report, women are often first to experience the harms of mining and can play a leading role in voicing these concerns, which makes them potential targets for harassment and attacks.[21] We cite activists’ reports of intimidation, violence, damage to property, use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrest for their activities.[22]

In South Africa women are often the most directly responsible for children, and may be without a second parent present in the household, caretaking of others.[23] Research by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies found that threats against women in South Africa adversely affect their children and families because of the role women predominantly play as primary caregivers.[24] Women are also often first to experience the harms of extractive industries on land, water, food, health, and livelihoods.[25] In many places collecting water and gathering food are responsibilities of women and impacts on these resources affect them first. As elsewhere globally, on average women in South Africa are poorer than men and more vulnerable to sudden losses of income or food or water resources and the burden of buying more expensive alternatives. This often motivates them to play a leading role in voicing these concerns and acting as human rights defenders, which makes them potential targets for harassment and attacks.[26]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call upon the government of South Africa to:

  • Publicly condemn assaults, threats, harassment, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests of activists, and direct the police and other government officials to stop all arbitrary arrests, harassment, or threats against community rights defenders.
  • Provide adequate and effective individual and collective protection measures to individuals and communities at risk.
  • Ensure that law enforcement authorities respect and protect the right to protest, including by not using unlawful measures of crowd control beyond what is strictly necessary to prevent harm to people or excessive harm to property.
  • Direct government officials at all levels, in particular in any departments responsible for regulating mining or protests, to comply with South Africa’s domestic and international obligations to respect, protect, and promote all human rights of activists across South Africa, including the community rights defenders in mining-affected communities, to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and protest, and the rights to health and a healthy environment.
  • Ensure women activists receive equal attention and support as male activists.

[1] Human Rights Watch, Why Sex Work Should be Decriminalised in South Africa, August 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/08/07/south-africa-decriminalise-sex-work

[2] Ibid.

[3] Republic of South Africa, Department of Basic Education, “Measures for the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy,” 2007, https://www.naptosa.org.za/doc-manager/40-professional/46-general/105-sg... (accessed August 28, 2018), pp. 6 – 7. Despite its existence, schools continue to expel pregnant girls in breach of South Africa’s constitutional laws. Lisa Draga et al, “Basic Education Rights Handbook – Chapter 8 – Pregnancy, http://section27.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Chapter-8.pdf (accessed August 28, 2018).

[4] Equal Education Law Centre and Section 27, “Equal Education Law Centre and Section 27 Submission to the Department of Basic Education in Respect of the Draft “National Policy on the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy in Schools,” April 2018, http://section27.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/EELC-and-S27-Submissi... (accessed August 15, 2018).

[5] Lisa Draga, Chandré Stuurman, and Demichelle Petherbridge, “Basic Education Rights Handbook – Education Rights in South Africa – Chapter 8: Pregnancy,” 2017, http://section27.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Chapter-8.pdf.

[6] Department of Basic Education, “DBE Draft National Policy on the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy in Schools,” 2018, https://www.education.gov.za/Portals/0/Documents/Policies/Draft%20Pregna... (accessed August 15, 2018).

[7] Parliamentary Monitoring Group, “Inclusive Education: status update,” Basic Education Committee, October 30, 2019, https://pmg.org.za/committee-meeting/29205/.

[8] Republic of South Africa, Department of Basic Education, “Measures for the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy,” 2007, https://www.naptosa.org.za/doc-manager/40-professional/46-general/105-sg... (accessed August 17, 2018).

[9] Human Rights Watch, Letter to the Department of Basic Education regarding their draft pregnancy policy, August 16, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/08/15/letter-south-africas-department-basi....

[10] Department of Basic Education, “Basic Education Department releases scripted lesson plans to the public to allay fears regarding comprehensive sexuality education content,” November 13, 2019, https://www.education.gov.za/Portals/0/Documents/CSE%20Scripted%20lesson... (accessed February 6, 2020).

[11] IOL, “Advocacy group heads to court as 600 000 disabled school kids forced to stay at home,” September 26, 2019, https://www.iol.co.za/news/advocacy-group-heads-to-court-as-600-000-disa... Human Rights Watch, “South Africa Education Barriers for Children with Disabilities,” August 18, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/08/18/south-africa-education-barriers-chil....

[12] Department of Basic Education, “School fees and exemption,” undated, https://www.education.gov.za/Informationfor/ParentsandGuardians/SchoolFe....

[13] Human Rights Watch, “South Africa: Education Barriers for Children with Disabilities,” August 18, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/08/18/south-africa-education-barriers-chil... (accessed February 10, 2020).

[14] “School fees” are defined as “any form of contribution of a monetary nature made or paid by a person or body in relation to the attendance or participation by a learner in any programme of a public school,” South African Schools Act, Act No. 24 of 2005: Education Laws Amendment Act, 2005, http://www.gov.za/sites/www.gov.za/files/a24-05_0.pdf, ch. 1 and s. 1(b).

[15] South African Schools Act, s. 34.

[16] Department of Basic Education, “School Fees and Exemption – No Fee Schools”, undated, http://www.education.gov.za/Parents/NoFeeSchools/tabid/408/Default.aspx (accessed August 9, 2018).

[17] Department of Education, “National Norms and Standards for School Funding,” General Notice 2363, October 12, 1998, http://www.education.gov.za/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=ZYYtOiXHTeE%3D&tab... (accessed August 5, 2018); Department of Basic Education, “Amended National Norms and Standards for School Funding,” January 16, 2015, http://www.gov.za/sites/www.gov.za/files/38397_gon17.pdf (accessed August 5, 2018).

[18] See for example, “Western Cape No Fee School 2017,” https://www.education.gov.za/Portals/0/Documents/Publications/2017%20No%... (accessed August 15, 2018)

[19] Human Rights Watch found that this is particularly the case in Gauteng and Western Cape provinces where special schools were traditionally set up to cater for white children with disabilities. Within Gauteng Province, many full-service schools are mainly in the outskirts of the city and the majority are Afrikaans speaking.

[20] Provincial Departments of Education are guided by a “Resource Targeting Table” to define needs-based allocations, “National Norms and Standards for school funding,” pp. 27-28. See Department of Basic Education, “Amended National Norms and Standards for School Funding,” Government Gazette no. 38397, 16 January 2015.

[21] Association for Women’s Rights in Development & Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, “Women Human Rights Defenders Confronting Extractive Industries: An Overview of Critical Risks and Human Rights Obligations,” pp. 10ss, https://www.awid.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/whrds-confronting_e... (accessed December 17, 2018).

[22] Human Rights Watch, “We Know Our Lives are in Danger”: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities, April 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/04/16/we-know-our-lives-are-danger/envir... (accessed February 10, 2020).

[23] “Single Motherhood in South Africa,” The Borgen Project, https://borgenproject.org/single-motherhood-in-south-africa/ (accessed February 10, 2020).

[24] Gumboh, Esther, et al., “Victimisation Experiences of Activists in South Africa,” Centre for Applied Legal Studies, April 2018, p. 21ss, https://www.osf.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Centre-for-Applied-Leg....

[25] Human Rights Watch, “We Know Our Lives are in Danger”: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities, April 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/04/16/we-know-our-lives-are-danger/envir... (accessed February 10, 2020).

[26] Association for Women’s Rights in Development & Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, “Women Human Rights Defenders Confronting Extractive Industries: An Overview of Critical Risks and Human Rights Obligations,” pp. 10ss, https://www.awid.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/whrds-confronting_e... (accessed December 17, 2018).

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am