30 October 2013

Girls and women with disabilities have rights too

This op-ed appeared in the weekly Moldovan newspaper Ziarul de Gardă last week. You can find a Romanian translation here.

2,200 people in Moldova are forced to live in 13 psychiatric and social care institutions: from Badiceni to Brinzeni, Balti to Bender, and Tiraspol in the Transnistria region. A third of these people are stripped of their autonomy. They are under guardianship where others control their lives. They are rendered invisible and invalid.

One of the buildings of Chisinau Psychiatric Hospital

In the Soviet times people with intellectual or mental health disabilities were sent to these facilities because of deeply-embedded stigma and legally-sanctioned discrimination. Children with disabilities were said to have defects: “Give this one to the state, go and have a normal child, parents were told.” Such an attitude belongs to history. It is wrong and unjust.

Moldovan society is still facing the legacy from the past. The government has committed to making changes. In 2010 it ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This Convention specifies that no one should live in an institution. It specifies that no-one should be under guardianship. The message is from exclusion from inclusion, from segregation to support.

This week the UN expert committee on women’s rights examined how girls and women are treated in Moldova. It called on the government to do more to protect women with disabilities from abuse, highlighting sexual assault in residential institutions, involuntary treatment, and forced sterilisation. I have seen myself how these human rights violations are widespread. I have heard about cases of rape and sexual violence, forced abortions. I have seen and smelt the degrading conditions of institutions, seen the effects of needless forced drugging, and talked to people being arbitrarily detained in the name of therapy and care.

The government needs to focus on four actions to help girls and women with disabilities in particular. First, it should make sure that no child with disabilities is denied an inclusive education. Second, it should adopt a plan with measurable actions to make speedy progress in closing institutions and providing supports for people to live in community settings. Third, it needs to reform the civil code to abolish guardianship and provide a legal framework for supported decision-making so people can decide on how to live their own lives. And fourth, the government should address torture and abuse: investigate allegations of sexual and physical abuse and neglect, and make sure that while institutions exist, the human rights of people who are forced to live in them are regularly and effectively monitored by independent authorities. The ombudsman’s office has an important role to play, and it should welcome the expertise of people with disabilities to participate in monitoring. They, after all, are the experts by experience. Given the seriousness of abuses within psychiatric hospitals, an Ombudsperson for Psychiatry should be formally established. 

The European Union’s disability strategy includes “promoting the rights of people with disabilities”. If Moldova wishes to become an EU Member State, the government needs to redouble its efforts. It needs to demonstrate how the lives of people currently belonging to marginalised groups – Roma, LGBT, children, older persons, people with disabilities – are changed for the better. It is only when lives are transformed that we can say human rights have been implemented. Plans are a good start, but actions are now needed.