Leading by example: Advancing disability rights in Gaza

By Haitham Al Saqqa, Medical Aid for Palestinians’ (MAP’s) Community Programme Assistant in Gaza

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the marginalisation of people with disabilities in Gaza. Sadly, the barriers we face are not new, but the virus has exacerbated the isolation many people now feel.

In Palestine there is little awareness in our communities about the rights of people with disabilities, and many continue to look down on us. Many public spaces are still not accessible. Without the needed adaptations and laws to enforce this, people with disabilities are prevented from accessing essential services and opportunities, including education and employment. In 2019 MAP supported a participatory photography project in Gaza and one woman’s photo powerfully captured this:

This environment makes it difficult for people with disabilities to participate in society. I have a disability myself; restricted growth. Through my work at MAP, I advocate for the rights of people with disabilities and ensure that they are involved in all our projects. I try to send the message to people with disabilities that they too can be empowered and leaders in their communities.

MAP partners with two organisations in Gaza – the Nuseirat Rehabilitation and Social Training Association and the Social Developmental Forum (SDF) – who provide rights-based and digital training and support to people with disabilities. It is amazing to see the difference that the training makes to those involved. One person, Naji, recently set up Palestine’s first national football team for people with physical disabilities. Before attending the sessions, he was unaware of his own rights. Now he is one of Gaza’s most active disability rights advocates, sitting on the Steering Committee of the General Union for People with Disabilities.

An important part of our partners’ training is equipping people with the skills to influence decision-makers to help bring about change. When COVID-19 first broke out in Gaza, there was a lack of accessible information about the virus. Naji joined some youth in our project to campaign for this, successfully getting a sign language interpreter included in the Ministry of Health’s daily updates.

Thanks to funding from MAP, our partner SDF have also delivered information on how to keep safe during the pandemic to the public, ensuring it is accessible to all. Their ‘Fight Corona’ campaign has reached more than a million and a half people on social media. It is run by people with and without disabilities working together, which sends an important message that people with disabilities play an integral role in society, and one not only limited to advocating for their own rights.

The context we face in Gaza – prolonged occupation, blockade and closure – also exacerbates the difficulties that many Palestinians with disabilities face. Last Autumn I joined a virtual briefing with the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to raise these issues in its review of Israel’s implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Alongside two disability rights advocates from our project, Shahd* and Mohammed*, and my colleagues in the West Bank and UK, we shared how Israel’s policies and practices as an occupying power obstruct the rights of Palestinians with disabilities.

Mohammed explained how the humanitarian and economic crisis caused by the blockade and closure of Gaza affects people with disabilities disproportionately. He explained: “we have one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, reaching 90% amongst people with disabilities.”

Together, we shared how barriers to freedom of movement, imposed by Israel, prevent disabled athletes from attending international competitions. Shahd explained how Israel’s permit regime had prevented her from accessing potentially sight-saving eye surgery in Jerusalem. “I would probably be able to see if I lived somewhere else”, she told the Committee.

As we approach 2021, my focus will be making sure our projects are accessible for people with learning disabilities. I hope next year will be as successful as this and look forward to reporting on how we are getting on. 

You can read more about MAP’s engagement with the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities here or more about MAP's participatory photography project with Palestinians with disabilities in Gaza here.

*Names changed to protect the identities of the advocates

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