The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is marking this year's Day of the African Child with a call to families, communities and governments on the continent to protect children with disabilities from discrimination, violence and neglect.
The agency also stressed the need to provide these children with access to all the services they need to grow up healthy and live up to their potential.
“Children living with disabilities continue to be the most excluded among all groups of children in Africa. Only a small portion of them are in school, and far fewer receive the adequate inclusive education they need,” said the Chief of UNICEF's Disability Unit, Rosangela Berman Bieler.
The Day of the African Child is marked on 16 June each year to honour the memory of school children killed in 1976 during a demonstration in Soweto, South Africa, to protest inferior education by the apartheid administration and to demand lessons in their own language. The Day also draws attention to the lives of African children today.
The theme for this year's observance is “The rights of children with disabilities: The duty to protect, respect, promote and fulfil.”
According to UNICEF, data suggests that between 5 and 10 per cent of all children in Africa grow up with disabilities. The main causes of disability include genetic disorders, complications during birth, diseases such as measles and meningitis, inadequate prenatal and neonatal health care services and inadequate diet leading to stunting.
So far, 25 out of 55 African countries have not yet ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the landmark 2006 treaty that seeks to ensure that persons with disabilities enjoy the same human rights as everyone else.
The Convention stipulates that children with disabilities should be protected against all forms of discrimination, and that they should have access to education, health services and protection from violence.
School enrolment among children with disabilities is much lower than among other children, UNICEF states in a news release. A 2011 study carried out by the agency in Madagascar found that on average only 11 per cent of children with disabilities attended primary school, with school attendance among girls much lower.
“Their learning achievements are often worse than those of other children, because schools are not designed to cater for them and teachers are often not adequately trained,” said the agency.
Several African countries introduced specific legislation, national policies or strategies to respond to the needs of children with disabilities. Rwanda is one of the countries that invested significantly in specialized education for children with disabilities. The number of children benefiting from special education there increased from 632 in 2000 to around 17,000 in 2010.
UNICEF is supporting the development of national frameworks for inclusive education in a number of African countries, which includes the training of teachers and the development of adequate learning materials and facilities.
It is also supporting concrete interventions for children with disabilities, including through the distribution of textbooks in Braille for children with visual impairment in Zimbabwe.