As I walked into the gate of Centre de Jeune Sourds-Muets, a primary and secondary school for children deprived of the sense of hearing and ability to speak, I could hear the faint noise of children playing around.
It was break-time and I was there to meet the school head prefect, a girl who had almost given up on school because of a hearing impairment and inability to speak.
As I looked around, I noticed a girl communicating to a group of students using sign language. As if she had noticed me, she smiled my way and beckoned me to walk towards her.
Finally, I had met Kelly Umwiza, a 22-year-old senior six student at Centre de JeuneSourds-Muets located in Ngoma, Huye District.
Umwiza has a unique story. Despite being a girl living with a disability, it did not stop her from taking on her privileged male counterparts in contesting for the highest position of the student’s body.
The school head prefect is an example that girls with disabilities have ability to reach their potential and do even better.
I was intrigued and wanted to know more about her considering that despite her disability, her leadership skills are adored by many at the school.
Since I am not familiar with sign language, her teacher, Francine Niyonsenga, was kind enough to assist during the interview.
In 2015, Umwiza was elected the head prefect of all students, a position which cultivated hope in her.
“When I was elected to be the head prefect, I didn’t care about my disability. In fact, it inspired me and made me realise that I have the ability to do anything,” she says.
This position, she says, has given her the chance to prove her ability.
“During my daily work of heading other students, I talk to older students and encourage them to lead others and set a good example. I personally try to be the embodiment of good behaviour,” she says.
Umwiza says she doesn’t care about her disability and only strives to work hard and inspire others “because we all have the potential to do well in society.”
For Umwiza, challenges will not stop her from setting goals.
“People with this disability face various challenges in community, but this shouldn’t stop us from setting goals that will boost our lives and the economy,” she says.
She however acknowledges that it is not easy to find a job because of the communication barrier adding that some employers are reluctant to employ people with disabilities.
“This is why we have to strive to be job creators and if that doesn’t work out, we should work towards convincing employers that we can do the job just as well.”
Umwiza also cautions parents who confine their disabled children at home.
“I know that people with disabilities are sometimes rejected in society, or looked down on, but that shouldn’t keep a child away from school,” she says, adding that there is need to sensitise society to fight discrimination against the disabled.
Why girls need to work hard
Umwiza believes that a hard worker is always respected in society.
“I am looking forward to being an independent lady. Even though we all must work hard, sadly, people with disability must put in more effort to silence any mockery. Girls are naturally looked at as the weaker gender, so you can imagine how hard it is for a disabled girl,” she says.
To her teachers and colleagues, she is exceptional
“She is the best female student and works well with others. She makes mature and responsible decisions and encourages others to follow suit,” says Francine Niyonsenga, her teacher.
Niyonsenga says that Umwiza is an open-minded girl who expresses herself where need be, especially regarding health and social factors.
“I am amazed at how she resolves conflict among others and advises them to behave well. She is the kind of girl they look up to,” Niyonsenga adds.
Her mother says, “She is not like others. She is always happy. She always tells me that she wants to be the kind of woman that society respects.”
Mary Kobusingye, the special needs education/inclusive education coordinator at the Ministry of Education, says that students with disabilities can be as good as the other able-bodied individuals in society.
“In school, the Ministry of Education caters for them. Especially those who have hearing, visual or speech disabilities to enable them to feel free to go about their daily life at school, including exams,” she says.
Kobusingye says that more effort should be put in following up any child who failed to complete their studies because of their disability. She also says that society’s mindset about the disabled should change.
Frere Prudence Shirubute, the director of Centre de JeuneSourds-Muets, says that children with disabilities succeed whenever they are given the opportunity.
“I have no doubt that these kids will succeed if they put their mind to it. All they need is encouragement, love and care. In Umwiza’s case, we chose her because of her intelligence, being responsible and the positive spirit that she exudes,” he says.
Umwiza was born in Karagwe, one of the six districts of the Kagera Region of Tanzania in 1995.
Together with her mother Dancillla Uzamukunda and siblings, they moved back to Rwanda when she was only three years old. Shortly after their return, Umwiza fell ill.
“She fell ill and nearly died, it was abrupt and we didn’t know what was wrong with her. She eventually recovered, but I realised that it had left her deaf and dumb,” her mother said.
Uzamukunda recalls with sadness the day she found out that her daughter would just look at me and not say a word. “Many times, I would say something to her and then realise that she didn’t hear what I said,” the mother recalls.
But as time went by Uzamukunda came to terms with the reality, and thought about the need to take her to school and get an education.
As they came to terms with her misfortune, Umwiza’s mother took her to a regular school.
It was even harder for Umwiza as a child. She was the only person with a disability in the home.
“As I grew up, I realised that I was the only one with a disability in my family, but that didn’t discourage me. I decided that I would always work hard,” Umwiza says cheerfully.
At one point she was forced to drop out of school. “She had to drop out of school in Primary 5 because the director and teachers found it very challenging. She was studying at Rweru Primary School at the time. So she came home and stayed there for a while,” her mother says sadly.
Her mother sold a small plot of land and used the Rwf 200,000 from the sale to take her back to school. This is when she joined Centre de JeuneSourds-Muets.
In 2011, Uzamukunda, who resides in Nyamata in Bugesera District, enrolled her daughter at Centre de JeuneSourds-Muets located in Ngoma, Huye District.
The school consists of 176 students with boys taking the larger ratio.
Currently, Umwiza majors in tailoring, hairdressing and cookery, something she believes will boost her livelihood when she eventually ventures into entrepreneurship- a dream she harbours.
The case of children with disabilities in Rwanda
Rwanda has made significant commitment to the right to education for children with disabilities, including ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2008 and establishing the National Council for People with Disabilities (NCPD) to act as an advocacy body and coordinate activities and monitor progress towards this commitment.
There are laws and policies in place to allow for the inclusion of children with disabilities in education, as reflected in the Education Sector Strategic Plan (ESSP) 2013/14–2017/18.
According to Romalis Niyomugabo, the president of the National Council of Persons with Disabilities, one of the Government’s visions is to increase equitable access to education for students with special education needs within mainstream and special schools.
“The special schools and centres are not evenly spread throughout Rwanda, at provincial level although they are insufficient in number to provide placements for all children with disabilities,” he says.
A 2015 study by UNICEF reveals that the country has approximately 92 identified inclusive schools in Rwanda, while a number of districts do not have any. Demand also exceeds supply in special schools.
Inclusive, school teachers reported difficulties in ensuring the participation of children with disabilities as they have large classes, and many felt more teacher training is required.
Another 2015 report from the National Council for People with Disabilities (NCPD) reveals that the longest serving care centre for children with disabilities has been operational for 56 years while the newest centres have been operating for the last 2 years.
Niyomugabo says that except for children with cases of profound disabilities, children with disabilities are able to attend classes in mainstream schools, but cites a number of challenges that cause school drop outs among these children.
“There are difficulties for children with disabilities in getting to school. Most children have to walk to school, which can involve long distances for those with disabilities who do not attend their nearest school. Some of the schools lack enough facilities like the toilets that cater for these children while some parents are also to blame for the negligence of their children,” he says.
He, however, says that there are a few cases reported of discrimination against children with disabilities and adds that the government, through MINEDUC, is ensuring inclusion of special needs for these children including the curriculum, accessibility of facilities and training teachers in mainstream schools.
How can girls with disabilities be empowered to take up leadership positions in schools?
It is the responsibility of teachers and parents. They should motivate these girls and show them that they are capable of doing what everyone else can do. That way, they are breeding a generation of leaders that is non discriminative.
Roger Kabera, Social worker
Being empowered to take up leadership positions starts with these girls’ mindset. The environment around them should be conducive enough to make their daily activities much easier to motivate their leadership roles.
Brian Tumushabe, Teacher
Girls with disabilities should fight self-pity and prove to the other students that they can do what everyone else does. The schools should also be conducive for these girls and provide the necessary materials such as adapted textbooks for students with visual impairment.
Caroline Mutesi, student
Schools should fight discrimination against children with disabilities and gender differences to empower these girls. The girls should be encouraged to be a part of all the school activities as a right not a privilege.
Christine Uwitonze, Businesswoman
Additional reporting bu Sharon Kantegwa