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Emerging from War, Finding a Voice: Disability and HIV/AIDS in Post-Conflict Northern Uganda

In a recent global survey of disability advocates, 87 percent of the organizations surveyed reported that HIV/AIDS is of immediate concern to the disabled populations that they serve.  Our advisor on disability and AIDS discusses the issues faced by disabled populations with HIV in conflict situations in northern Uganda.

Today northern Uganda is slowly emerging from a war that has ravaged the region for the past twenty years.  This conflict has caused over 1.7 million people to be displaced from their homes many forced into IDP — internally displaced peoples — camps.  Residents of these IDP camps experience crowded conditions and mounting frustration.  There are high levels of alcoholism, sexual violence and unraveling of social and cultural norms.  This region is also host to one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in Uganda.

Due to the violence of the conflict, poverty and lack of adequate health care facilities and services there is also a very high incidence of disability in the region.

There are numerous governmental and non-governmental relief and development initiatives targeting this region but none are looking specifically at the intersection between disability and HIV/AIDS issues.  We, at AIDS-Free World, feel that this is a shameful oversight with often deadly consequences. There are creative innovations taking place on the ground but we need a response from the international community to support these initiatives and allow them to grow.   

Let me first outline the issues contributing to particular challenges when disability, AIDS and conflict intersect.

Earlier this year, the Women’s Commission on Refugee Women and Children published a landmark report addressing disabilities amongst refugees and other conflict affected populations, including IDPs.  This is the first study of its kind and I highly recommend that each one of you read it, as soon as you have a chance.  This report highlights the fact that displaced peoples often suffer serious injuries resulting in a variety of impairments.  When essential treatment is lacking because of the conflict or disaster, such injuries can easily lead to permanent disabilities.  Likewise, people with existing impairments do not receive necessary treatment and their conditions can worsen.

It is also important to remember the range of disabilities affecting people in conflict settings. They are not limited to those disabilities newly acquired due to violence.  Often, we see that programs that are set up to support people with disabilities focus exclusively on those people newly acquired disabilities, landmine victims for example, but fail to engage in a deeper analysis of disability rights that could benefit all people with disabilities including those disabled from birth or through diseases like polio.

Furthermore, in post-conflict situations — like the one we are currently witnessing in northern Uganda —  where communities previously living in IDP camps are re-settling into villages and rural communities, the transition is often most difficult for people with disabilities, regardless of how their disability was acquired.  People with disabilities displaced in Kitgum District, in northern Uganda, have shared their worries about the transition back to their home communities: they will have longer distances to travel to find food, fetch water, access medical care and other essential services.  The family support systems that may have been their previously have often been eroded by the last 20 years of conflict.

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