Conversation with leaders

Thursday, November 21, 2013

By Samona Murugan

The Department of Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities (DWCPD) is one of the government departments that many overlook, misunderstand and often take for granted, yet the work this department is doing to change the lives of its namesake is truly remarkable.

Public Sector Manager magazine met with DWCPD Deputy Minister Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, an advocate of empowering vulnerable persons in society, and a mother determined to create a better South Africa for her children, who were also born with disabilities.     

“This November as we celebrate Disability Month, we are on a mission to break barriers that stand in the way of people with disabilities,” declared the Deputy Minister.

Piggybacking on the United Nations theme for this year’s International Day of People with Disabilities, ‘Break barriers and open doors for an inclusive society for all’, the department has introduced five focus areas of breaking barriers. The five areas are access to public transport, promoting sign language, improving access to braille material, promoting the use of right terminology and increasing access to and sensitivity at places of worship.

Breaking barriers

One of the barriers the department wants to overcome is to improve the access of people with disabilities to public transport. Despite certain busses and trains being equipped with disability friendly features, most of the public transport in the country is still inaccessible to someone in a wheelchair.

“What is the point of creating jobs for people with disabilities if they cannot take a bus or taxi to work?”

The Deputy Minister says her department is working with the Department of Transport to revamp transport infrastructure and the current transport system to make it more accessible. Already, the new public transport system being rolled out, such as the Bus Rapid Transit system and the Gautrain are more user friendly to people with disabilities.

Overcoming the language barrier

Deputy Minister Bogopane-Zulu says to overcome the language barrier facing  people with hearing disabilities, the department is working with other departments to introduce sign language as the 12th official language in the country. It will also be the first official language for deaf learners, or those with hearing disabilities. Another major achievement is the introduction of sign language as a subject at school. Come January 2014, all learners at mainstream and special schools across the country will be able to take sign language as a subject.

In an attempt to improve access to braille material for persons who are blind or visually Impaired, South Africa enforced the Marrakesh Treaty which was signed by 51 countries in June this year. Simply put, the treaty allows for copyrighted books to be reproduced in braille. The treaty makes it legal to send braille books across national borders. For example, since South Africa approved the treaty, blind people in the country have been able to access books from the United States.

Albinism: dispelling the myths

“We need to break the barriers of terminology and how we refer to people with disabilities, and those who suffer from albinism.” Albinism is an inherited condition that affects a person’s pigmentation. This means that a person is unable to produce normal colouring of the skin, hair and eyes. Today there are many challenges facing those who suffer from albinism or disabilities. They are at times treated as outcasts or even killed for muti (traditional medicine). Some communities believe that a mother who gives birth to an albino is cursed or is being punished by ancestors.

To address these challenges, the department in October hosted the first ever conference for people with albinism, in partnership with the Albinism Society of South Africa, linguists, traditional healers, and government and community leaders. The conference explored ways of accelerating the realisation of the right of persons with albinism in South Africa to dignity and equality. “As a nation it is about time that we join forces and talk about issues and the realities persons with albinism face. We need severe introspection on how we treat people with albinism in the country,” says Deputy Minister Bogopane-Zulu.

Opening the doors of worship to all

The last barrier is one of access to places of worship and religion. If you stop and look at the designs of a church for example, she says, a person in a wheelchair cannot sit on a pew or go up to the altar to receive a communion. Instead they have to worship from the middle of the aisle or from the back of the church. “We need to tackle and improve infrastructure across all places of worship from churches to temples and mosques.” 

Another challenge affecting the dignity of a person with disabilities is the interpretation of the scriptures. “In many communities, disabled persons are portrayed as objects to reaffirm faith. If someone has been in a car accident and ends up in a wheelchair, certain religious leaders use this as a façade to pray for them so they will stand up. These kinds of things are disrespectful and perpetuate disability discrimination. It creates a barrier for someone who just wants to be a spiritual person,” she adds.

Improving lives

Deputy Minister Bogopane-Zulu expresses satisfaction that the advent of democracy has improved the lives of people with disabilities, but admits that more needs to be done. “The major impact we have made as government is restoring dignity to the lives of our people. Previously, people with disabilities were looked down upon and as burdens on society. I was a rural, black, disabled woman. I was less of a human because I was black, on top of that I was a woman, and to top it off I was disabled - I was invisible in society, but today people like me have a chance at a better life.”

In the past 20 years of our democracy we have come a long way, but we still have much to do. The Deputy Minister says government has improved access to education for people with disabilities. Previously, only white disabled children were allowed to go to school. Now, thanks to inclusive education and the introduction of special schools across the country, a disabled child can go to any school he or she wants to. “As a parent you can now choose which school you would want your child to attend, be it a mainstream or a special school. A principal has no right to deny a child access to education and if a school is not accessible to your child, that is not your problem, it is government’s problem to make sure your child is able to learn.”

She adds that with the establishment of Higher and Further Education Disability Services Association (HEDSA) last year, more disabled students are now going to tertiary institutions and Further Education and Training colleges. HEDSA is a non-profit organisation that represents disabled students and assists them with disability services at Higher and Further Education Institutions. To further increase the number of disabled graduates, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) revised its guidelines to enable disadvantaged and disabled learners to access funding. NSFAS also gives disabled learners access to assistive and technical devices should they need it, which was never possible before.

The Department of Social Development also introduced a disability grant, and should you acquire a disability, government now makes provision for an additional grant that will enable you to make your house accessible, says Deputy Minister Bogopane-Zulu. “This is an additional grant, a benefit we have never had before.”

Regarding employment of people with disabilities, Deputy Minister Bogopane-Zulu says she is not happy with where we stand as government. “A target for the employment of people with disabilities was set at 2% in 2000, with 5% having been reached by 2005. Thirteen years later, we only sit at 1,4% it is unacceptable.” However, adds the Deputy Minister, government departments and the private sector have made great strides in the past year. Her department leads the way, with employment of people with disabilities at 7%. “We have exceeded our own target, and stress that other departments should follow.”

Despite one in every eight South Africans being disabled, up until 2007 the vulnerability of people with disabilities to the HIV epidemic was neglected in South Africa's national response. This changed in 2007, when disabled people were finally acknowledged as a priority group in the country's National Strategic Plan 2007-2012 on HIV, AIDS and STIs.

Measures to rescale posts and vacancies are in the works as well. “A vacancy advert in a newspaper does not help a blind person who cannot read a newspaper, we need to change the way we look at things.”

The department will also be meeting with the insurance industry this month to look into insuring people with disabilities. “The insurance industry still discriminates against disability, because if you suffer from a disability, you cannot be insured. We are trying to break that barrier so people like myself have access to insurance.  We also are tackling the way medical aid schemes and structures, the barrier they create when structuring disability benefits."

Another great achievement is previously parents of disabled children had to carry disability costs on their own, thanks to the department interventions, parents are now able to get every disability related expense paid back to them, when they submit their tax returns. 

Empowering young women

The departments programme of focus this month is the Zazi know your strength campaign. It targets teenage pregnancy in the country, and derives from the Nguni word, meaning Know Yourself. The programme encourages young women to take charge in the prevention of HIV, draw on their inner strength and create the life they want to live an HIV free life.

“The Zazi campaign was developed by women for women and celebrates the strength of South African women. We hope the campaign creates a movement that encourages women to defy the silence that allows the pain in their lives to thrive, to define their own values and their own path in life.”

The campaign forms part of Government’s National Strategic Plan with respect to the HIV/AIDS, and Tuberculosis (TB) and STIs epidemics.  "Our aim is zero new HIV/AIDS and TB infections; zero new infections due to vertical transmission; zero preventable deaths associated with HIV/AIDS and TB; zero discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS and TB; and the d to Gender-Based Violence.”

Zazi will be rolled out in the Gert Sibande district in Mpumalanga- the leading district in inter-generational sex, teenage pregnancy and HIV prevalence amongst young girls. “The ratio of infection among girls aged from 10 to 18 in the district is 1:1. This means that every second girl over the age of 10 is HIV positive, and majority of the girls have had terminated pregnancies more than once.”

To raise awareness and tackle the challenges facing the community, DWCPD together with the Department of Health has foot soldiers working in the community to educate young girls on HIV prevention.  A massive green ribbon of hope will be launched symbolising communities uniting to tackle the social ills that affect our children and young women. The department also calls on men to stand up and join the Brothers for Life campaign- a band of brothers who inspire men to stand up against abuse.

Caring for the vulnerable

Aside from creating access and inclusion for people with disabilities, the department also tackles social ills facing women and children.Launched by President Jacob Zuma in May 2009, the department is responsible for promoting equal opportunities and access to these opportunities for vulnerable groups in society - these are women, children and people with disabilities. From meeting international obligations to setting norms and standards for government departments to follow, this young team is fast changing the lives of women, children and persons with disabilities.

In a nutshell, the department has six core functions. These are overseeing the country’s international obligations, coordinating and consolidating government’s programmes, monitoring and evaluation, providing institutional support and capacity development, facilitating participation of various sectors and mainstreaming priorities, campaigns and projects relating to women, children and people with disabilities.

Regarding the international obligations the country has, the department oversees signing of treaties like the Conventions on the Rights of a Child (CRC) and submits these reports to various agencies like the United Nations and the African Union. “We oversee these reports from beginning to end, from ensuring Government’s consultation processes are met, to ultimately putting together a country report that is taken through cabinet to parliament.”

Previously, government departments worked in silos on issues affecting vulnerable groups. “Our department was established to coordinate and consolidates other department’s efforts and align them to government’s priorities.”

Despite Government already establishing a department dedicated to Monitoring and Evaluation on the broader outcomes of government, one of DWCPD core goals is to also to set monitoring and evaluation indicators on specific outcomes relevant for women, children and persons with disabilities. Providing Institutional support and capacity development entails producing research documents which guide government’s policies. One core example on disability is the issue of special schools in the country. “We are producing a report that will guide the Department of Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME) and the Department of Basic Education on how to deal with issues on special schools. Our report will unpack the challenges around specials schools in the country and the gaps that need to be filled.” 

Facilitating the participation of various sectors in the decisions it makes simply entails leading efforts to in ensure the participation of vulnerable groups in issues that affect them. For example Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) states that children must participate in decisions that affect them.  “It is our responsibility to facilitate child participation, if Government needs to amend the Sexual Offences Act, we make sure that children are brought into the parliamentary process so that the child’s voice is heard.” 

Lastly, the department is responsible for advocacy and mainstreaming of priorities, campaigns and projects. By leading, or working in conjunction with other departments on a campaign, more vulnerable persons are assisted. “Take the HIV Counselling and Testing (HCT) campaign for instance, we have found that if a message comes directly from us, instead of from the Department of Health, women respond better, because we streamline it to their circumstances. As part of the HCT campaign, we issued messaging highlighting that HIV causes blindness and other forms of disability. So the core groups that we serve were able to hear our message and get tested.

“Our portfolio is quite complex, but not well understood by the rest of government because people expect a physical service,” says the Deputy Minister.  Her pet projects, she confirms, are disability, anti-poverty and HIV and Aids relating to women, children and persons with disabilities. “For me disability hits home, it is personal. Being visually impaired and raising two children that are visually impaired as well, makes disability my first passion. As a mother and as a public servant, I want to create better services, opportunities and a better life for people like myself and my children - being able to do that is me at my best.”

The Deputy Minister says the past four years were mostly spent establishing a structure, setting up premises, hiring staff and acquiring resources. “This is the first year we get to implement and officially make changes to create a better society for vulnerable persons.”

Despite the transition, the biggest impact we have made, says the Deputy Minister, is enforcing the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill which will guide gender transformation compliance in the private and public sectors. Under the new legislation, government departments and companies will be required to fill a minimum of 50% of all senior and top management positions with women. Once adopted, Government will be able to fine executive heads who contravene the Act.

Another achievement for the department is conducting their first baseline study on disability. “We now know as a country what are the issues affecting disabled citizens and we are working hard to break these barriers.”

Moving forward

The Deputy Minister called on public servants to lead the way for the rest of South Africa. “Their attitude is the biggest barrier. We need public servants to think of vulnerable people when they provide and design services, develop policies, and realise directly or indirectly what barriers they are creating for persons with disabilities, and at the same time what are they contributing to break those barriers.”

She also encouraged men to join be involved in the activities of Brothers for Life and become ambassadors of no violence and discrimination against women, children and people with disabilities. “We must do everything in our power to create a better life for those in need.” 

People with disabilities have the same rights as all other South Africans, says Deputy Minister. This is enshrined in the Constitution. Government along with Disabled People of South Africa has in addition developed a Disability Rights Charter which further explains and illuminates the basic Constitutional Rights. “These are all interlinked with The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which South Africa has ratified together with other conventions and treaties protecting for example the rights of women and children. An array of legislation, now protects the rights of disabled people over a wide spectrum of living, employment, benefits, and protection from discrimination and hate speech.”

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