The 8th Annual Disability Rights Conference was held on Tuesday 17 and Wednesday 18 November 2020, virtually via zoom. The theme for this year’s two-day conference was ‘realising the right to health of persons with disabilities in Africa’. The conference focused on developing responses for overcoming barriers faced by persons with disabilities in the respect, protection and fulfilment of the right to health in the African region.
The conference began with a welcome address delivered by Professor Elsabe Schoeman, Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria (UP). Professor Schoeman noted that a focus on the right to health is both appropriate and timely given the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic. She added that the conference promises to be ‘monumental’ and ‘significant’ and that lessons must be drawn from this pandemic to help prepare for any future events. Professor Schoeman’s address was followed by an address from Professor Frans Viljoen, Director of UP's Centre for Human Rights. He highlighted the work that the Centre's Disability Rights Unit is doing to promote disability rights across the region, including this conference. Thereafter, Professor Charles Ngwena delivered opening remarks in which he highlighted the main barriers to persons with disabilities accessing the right to health including, attitudinal, political, financial, communication, physical and health systems barriers. He highlighted the need for remedial action that responds to the various barriers to the right to health. He further conceded that though no state can guarantee the right to health absolutely, the state has an enormous influence on the determinants. Professor Ngwena concluded by stating that the conference seeks to contextualise, regionalise and domesticate, the human rights standards enshrined in article 25 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Article 15 of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Africa.
Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health delivered the keynote address. She revealed that part of her mandate is to pay particular attention to the health of persons with disabilities. Dr Mofokeng highlighted that sexual and reproductive health rights are an integral part of the right to health of persons with disabilities.
Topics discussed at the conference included the impact of COVID-19 on the right to health of persons with disabilities; the place of global and regional jurisprudence in the interpretation and application of the right to health of persons with disabilities; and financing healthcare for persons with disabilities in Africa.
A significant portion of the conference was dedicated to discussing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic which has had a disproportionately negative impact on the right to health of persons with disabilities. A number of challenges were highlighted including inaccessible transport systems to get to health care centres during lock-down, inaccessible information on COVID-19, challenges with personal and protective equipment, and the impact of COVID-19 protocols on carers and family involvement in care, to mention but a few. Presenters highlighted that these challenges were largely due to the widespread exclusion of persons with disabilities from decision-making around the COVID-19 response. Accordingly, participants called for African governments to include persons with disabilities, not only in their response strategies, but also in their decision-making processes.
Other pertinent issues relating to the right to health of persons with disabilities were also discussed. Of note is the sexual and reproductive health rights of persons with disabilities, which are all too often violated through the denial of contraceptives, the denial of information about sexual and reproductive health and forced sterilisation. Experts emphasised the need to recognise the impact of intersectionality on the right to sexual and reproductive health. Adolescents with mild intellectual disabilities, for example, are disproportionately represented amongst those who are denied sexual and reproductive health rights because their age as well as their disability combine to compound the level of discrimination. In African culture, generally, adolescents are regarded as too young and therefore not entitled to sexual and reproductive health rights. Persons with mild intellectual disabilities are erroneously regarded as asexual. Thus when an individual is both an adolescent and a person with an intellectual disability, they are far more likely to face discrimination and be denied sexual and reproductive health rights. The conference concluded with sessions exploring the role of civil society, non-governmental organisations, family and care-givers in promoting he right to health of persons with disabilities.
Due to the COVID-19 lockdown and travel restrictions, the conference was held virtually via zoom for the first time in 7 years. This however, did not dissuade people from attending. There were over 210 participants in attendance from several African countries including Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Mauritius, Kenya and Uganda. The conference was successful despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
Day 1 Session 1: 17 November 2020
Day 1 Session 2: 17 November 2020
Day 2 Session 1: 18 November 2020
Day 2 Session 2: 18 November 2020
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