On the border between Rwanda and DR Congo, wheelchairs supplied millions of litres of water to Goma. In the Southern province, a cooperative for people living with disabilities knitted sweaters for schools.
When the coronavirus emerged, Rwanda locked up its economy and borders. The two groups lost everything – and so did the livelihoods of thousands of others living with disabilities.
According to the 2012 national census, there were 446,453 persons with disabilities aged 5 and above – or about 4.3% of the population at the time. Out of which 221,150 were male and 225,303 are female. Several years later, their numbers have obviously increased slightly.
To mark an unusual International Day for People Living with Disabilities, held annually on December 1, the World Bank and UN said more than 1 billion people globally who are estimated to have a disability. Most live in developing countries and are among the most excluded groups in our society.
Persons with disabilities often find it tough to access services, education, or employment opportunities. As a result, they are less likely to participate in the economy, which in turn drives them to poverty.
The global COVID-19 crisis, said the World Bank, has worsened the existing inequalities and exposed the deep fault lines of exclusion that already exist. Without an inclusive approach to recovery, say the Bank and UN, one which considers the disproportionate impact that COVID has on persons with disabilities, this population is at risk of being left behind.
For those with disabilities in Rwanda, the exclusion is particularly notable as they live in an already poor country that can only do enough to uplift them. Those who had gained some meaningful livelihoods, have gone back to poverty following the pandemic.
A small sample we interviewed may not necessarily tell the whole story about the plight of the disabled, but give hint of what many are living through.
In Kamonyi district, we find Twisungane-Nyarubaka cooperative which had contracts to supply sweaters for schools. Basically, schools that have sweater combination to their uniforms sought the services of this cooperative.
It is a business that kept them busy for each of the three terms of the academic year. In 2020, however, schools were closed in mid March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since then, Twisungane cooperative wasn’t even able to sell out the stock they had made for the first term. More than 9 months later, schools are yet to fully open and the cooperative’s disabled members have been surviving on the edge.
Data from the National Council of Persons with Disabilities (NCPD), shows there are 380 cooperatives of people with disabilities. Of these, according to NDAYISABA Emmanuel, the executive secretary, more than 30 cooperatives have had to seize operations after their businesses collapsed completely.
“These are the ones that have had to closed shop because their services were no longer needed, but many others have seen their operations heavily impacted because the service they were offering has been scaled down by the clients,” said Ndayisaba.
In Nyanza district, we found Duhumurizanye-Mututu cooperative, which had been contracted by local authorities as the cleaning agency for the Mututu main market. After the national lockdown, government allowed markets to open in May but required to operate at 50% capacity.
The co-operative Duhumurizanye-Mututu leader ABARIKUMWE Patrick told us that market traders at the time in May began defaulting on payments for cleaning services. Eventually, he said, the traders stopped paying dues altogether because they weren’t making enough money for themselves.
Our probe took us to Rubavu district, where, before the pandemic, had a common sight around Rubavu town and the border with DR Congo. Here, wheelchairs were used to carry jerrycans of water and other goods to take to Goma. It is a business that has sustained members of COTRARU cooperative for years.
The Chronicles special report published in May showed how nearly 2million of Goma’s residents have depended on water from Rwanda because their region has no clean water, and what is naturally from the vast lake Kivu is extremely salty.
It is the wheelchairs manned by the more than 400 COTRARU members that delivered the water Goma badly needs. But the business stopped when Rwanda closed its border, which remains to date.
Following The Chronicles exposé, the water was allowed to flow again to Goma, but under very different mechanisms – which the authorities say are meant to minimize spread of the virus. The disabled people are not benefitting from the changes introduced by Rubavu district authorities.
BATUNZI Yvan, the cooperative’s head told us the saving they had, have also run out because they had to use them to support their members who have all been unemployed.
In addition, even if they were allowed to start transporting water to Goma again, which is unlikely soon, the wheelchairs have all been damaged as a result of remaining static for many months. The wheelchairs will need repairs for which the cooperative doesn’t have money.
Away from the economic troubles that people with disabilities are having to grapple with, there are also health issues.
In July, more than 100 disability advocacy organizations on the global stage petitioned the UN Secretary General António Guterres calling for immediate response to address the specific needs of persons with disabilities to maintain their health, safety, dignity, and independence in the community throughout the COVID-19 outbreak and related health emergencies.
Compared to persons without disabilities, persons with disabilities are more likely to have poor health: among 43 countries, 42 per cent of persons with disabilities versus 6 per cent of persons without disabilities perceive their health as poor, say campaigners.
In Rwanda, they will need much more than existing government goodwill and political commitments to support people with disabilities; they need food urgently, which will be for sometime.
By Aimable Uwizeyimana and Jean Bosco Mbonyumugenzi