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In February 2020, Uganda’s National Disability Act went into effect. Organizations of Persons with Disabilities celebrated, recognizing the decades of grassroots movement-building that led to this milestone. And this victory was celebrated because achieving disability rights paves the way for greater inclusion and equity.
A few weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic shook the world. As persons with disabilities faced unprecedented crises that disproportionately impacted their health, livelihoods, and safety, Ugandan Organizations of Persons with Disabilities became a critical lifeline.
Women with disabilities quickly raised alarms on the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and gender-based violence. The Gulu Women with Disabilities Union worked with its local district commissioner to advance disability-inclusive reproductive health programs. The group’s advocacy during lockdown led to increased reporting on gender-based violence, leading to convictions. The Gulu Women with Disabilities Union also provided paralegal support, monitoring cases at the sub-county level to reduce gender-based violence against women and girls with disabilities.
Youth with disabilities, too, mobilized to bring attention to the vulnerabilities they faced, including challenges with online learning. The media-savvy, youth-led Show Abilities Uganda generated visibility on radio and television talk shows, producing more than 110 spot messages in multiple languages to show the growing crisis of violence faced by youth with disabilities.
“Show Abilities has given young people a voice to talk about their own rights,” says Betty Cheptoek, the organization’s executive director. “Youth are telling the government and development decision-makers, ‘Yes, we are here! We have rights as young people, and this needs to be mainstreamed in development programs.’”
With a grant from the Disability Rights Fund, youth advocates with disabilities engaged with various government actors, including the Equal Opportunities Commission, police, and justice service providers, sharing their lived experiences during the pandemic and the lack of inclusive services. They called upon local authorities and parents to support youth with disabilities, to report human rights violations and gender-based violence cases, and to create a safe environment during lockdown.
Both of these organizations are grantees of the Disability Rights Fund, a U.S.-based organization that supports the disability rights movement around the world to advocate for equal rights and full participation in society. These Ugandan advocates remind us that disability is diversity. Disability rights are interlinked with climate justice, queer liberation, and livelihood dignity. Intersectional giving must apply a gender-transformative approach that recognizes the leadership and advocacy of disabled human rights defenders.
The Disability Rights Fund has been funding in Uganda since its inception in 2008, but as the pandemic raged, the fund pivoted more than 80% of its grants to Organizations of Persons with Disabilities, trusting their advocacy and leadership during this time of uncertainty.
All this occurs within a philanthropic landscape in which less than 2% of global human rights funding goes to persons with disabilities. Ugandan grantees remind us that philanthropy must confront its ableism and have a reckoning on its failings to include persons with disabilities and give them a seat at the table for funding decisions. Global philanthropy must be inclusive, reflective, visionary, and emancipatory. Disabled women human rights defenders in Uganda share that “nothing about us without us” is a practice, not rhetoric.
Too many funders expect quick returns without deep investment, often giving restricted grants. But trust-based, long-term funding is critical for advocacy wins and meaningful shifts.
After awarding more than 310 grants to advocacy groups over the course of 14 years through the Disability Rights Fund and its sister fund, the Disability Rights Advocacy Fund, the impact in Uganda is palpable: The country’s disability movement has grown in both diversity and capacity. It has successfully advocated for the passage of the Persons with Disability Act (2020) and the Building Control Act (2013), which incorporated accessibility standards into building codes and implementation guidelines, thanks to the advocacy of grantee Uganda National Action on Physical Disability. Other wins for the Ugandan disability rights movement include the adoption of ordinances for accessibility in Mukono and Wakiso Districts, and for inclusive health in Lira District.
Moreover, the Funds’ support also increased the visibility of specific marginalized groups of persons with disabilities. Persons with albinism, for example, successfully advocated to be recognized as persons with disabilities.
“We now have accessibility commissions and audits involving [Organizations of Persons with Disabilities] through the Building Control Act,” says Esther Kyoriza, a former Disability Rights Fund program officer who is the first woman appointed as the executive director of the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda. “[Disability Rights Fund] has invested in the leadership of marginalized groups within the disability movement, like me.”
Ugandan grantees also shared testimonies of their lived experiences during COVID-19 for the Disability Rights Monitor, a short-term human rights monitoring group focused on the consequences of the pandemic on persons with disabilities globally.
There are abundant opportunities to diversify giving. As the pandemic continues exacerbating inequities, global philanthropy cannot make any more excuses. There is no inclusion without disability rights. Intersectionality is the only way forward.
Rucha Chitnis is a photojournalist, writer, filmmaker, and fellow at the International Women's Media Foundation.