In Sri Lanka, many people with disabilities are unaware of their rights, even though Sri Lanka has good disability legislation and policy. N. G. Kamalawathie shares the story of how AKASA, an organisation of women with disabilities is raising awareness about rights and trying to use the law as a framework for change.
AKASA follows a ‘bottom-up’ approach to development. It is a network of groups of women with disabilities across the country, which aims to improve the lives of people with disabilities and women with disabilities in particular. I am the founder of AKASA. I am a woman with mobility impairment and I struggled to find suitable and accessible employment and housing. I realised that change was needed so that women with disabilities could gain independence and become integrated in mainstream society. But I knew that it would be impossible to get my lone voice heard. I organised a group of women with disabilities from different districts in Sri Lanka and started discussion and planning on what could be done. On 30 December, 1995, the group was formed and we called ourselves AKASA which means ‘the sky’ in Sinhala. We started with no money and only a few members. We grew into an organisation that now receives financial and moral support from the Swedish Handicapped International Aid Foundation (SHIA) and other funding agencies. AKASA members are rural women aged 18 to 40 years. They come from families that are among the poorest of the poor, with incomes ranging from 760 (Sri Lankan) rupees to 1,140 rupees (US$8.0 to $12) per month. More than 75 per cent of members are unmarried, and most have no more than a grade five or six education; they left school because of poverty and disability.
AKASA believes that people with disabilities must enjoy the same human rights as everyone else and the best way to achieve this is by empowering people with disabilities, through education and economic development. Our mission is to support people with disabilities in Sri Lanka in order to protect them from economic, political, cultural and social discrimination. We encourage them to develop their skills, abilities and talents in order to obtain equal opportunities for full participation in society and help them to live as independent, self reliant citizens of Sri Lanka.
Disabled persons’ organisations (DPOs) are playing a major role to claim rights for people with disabilities in Sri Lanka. Disability Organisation Joint Front (DOJF) is the first and only umbrella body for 23 disability organisations in Sri Lanka. AKASA is a pioneer member of this network and presently holds the position of secretary of DOJF. Others members include the Central Federation of the Deaf, Sri Lanka Federation of the Visually Handicapped and Sri Lanka Spinal Injuries Association. DOJF supports disabled persons organisations to work jointly as a pressure group to protect the rights of persons with disabilities, ensuring them a free and independent life.
In Sri Lanka, there is a better legislative and policy framework on disability than in some other countries in the region. The Constitution of the Democratic Social Republic of Sri Lanka, Chapter 3 on fundamental rights, Article 12, subsection 4 states “Nothing in this article shall prevent special provisions being made by law, subordinate legislation or executive action for the advancement of women, children and/or persons with disability.”
Parliamentary Act No. 28 of 1996 to Protect the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has been passed in accordance with sections 108, 109, 110, 111, of the World Program of Action to achieve equal opportunities for persons with disabilities. The definition of the term ‘disability’ means any person who, as a result of any deficiency in his physical or mental capabilities, whether congenital or not, is unable by himself to ensure for himself, wholly or partly, the necessities of life. This Act gives a legal framework for the activities of the National Council for Persons with Disabilities for the promotion, improvement and protection of rights of persons with disabilities in Sri Lanka. The Act contains special provisions enabling disabled people to file action directly in the high courts in case of violation of their rights, such as the right to education, accessibility and employment. There are very crucial priorities with regard to equal opportunities and equal participation. Act no. 28 of 1996 provides guidelines for the registration of non-governmental organisations addressing issues of disability under sections 20, 21, and 22 for implementation of better services for persons with disabilities.
Even though there is a better legislative and policy framework on disability, people with disabilities in Sri Lanka still face discrimination and social stigma. Most people with disabilities are not aware of their fundamental rights or the rights of people with disabilities. This is due to a lack of information available to them and insufficient support to promote the relevant rights or entitlements.
When we compare the situation of people with disabilities 10 years ago and now, there have been many positive changes. When we started to lobby for the rights of people with disabilities, there was no disability policy in Sri Lanka. For many years the disability movement in Sri Lanka requested a National Policy on Disability from the Government. In May 2003, a “National Policy on Disability for Sri Lanka” was launched – a great achievement for the disability movement in Sri Lanka.
In August 2007, I was nominated to participate for the 8th Ad Hoc Committee meeting in New York on the UN International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and I was the only woman with a disability to participate from Sri Lanka. There I was able to raise some of the issues that need to be included in the UNCRPD. The Government of Sri Lanka signed up to the UNCRPD in March 2007.
As a result of being a signatory of the UNCRPD, regulations on accessibility were enacted by the Parliament of Sri Lanka in 2007. According to the new regulations, all new constructions, renovations and modifications of public buildings and transport have to conform to accessibility guidelines, and all existing public buildings have to be made accessible within three years.
The main reason for success is that the lobbying has been done by people with disabilities themselves, for their own rights. One of the biggest lessons we have learned is that DPOs need to work in cooperation with the government sector to achieve sustainable development for the betterment of people with disabilities. Also, a common goal must be developed by both sectors and people with disabilities should be included in every stage of the process.
N. G. Kamalawathie, AKASA, Sri Lanka
Filed under: Rights to health