"We no longer feel excluded," says Adidja Mugisha. © UNFPA Burundi / Queen Nyeniteka

"I would like to prepare myself for the future and I'm ready to and excited about taking care of my own life. I call on all disabled people, especially girls, to refuse to be marginalized or deceived.”

These are the words of Gladys Nzomukunda, 22, who is from Kirundo in northern Burundi. In her community, many people live in such poverty that they are unable to feed or educate their numerous children, as they lack the means. But particularly vulnerable are disabled people, who have the potential to be exploited.

"Many people think that a disabled (woman) is able only to give birth," says Gladys Nzomukunda. © UNFPA Burundi / Queen Nyeniteka

“Many girls like me fall into the trap of thinking that if someone deigns to approach them and make advances, they cannot let that person go; they think that a disabled (woman) is able only to give birth.”

For what is in all likelihood the first time ever in Burundi, a group of people living with disabilities from all 17 provinces were brought together to learn about reproductive health (RH) and the importance of family planning. The session, led by the Ministry of Public Health in partnership with UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, aimed to inform people with a range of disabilities – from the blind to the deaf-mute, and those in wheelchairs or on crutches, while the organizers sought to learn their perceptions of family planning.

“I was reassured and filled with confidence that I can develop myself despite my disability and expand the economy of my family and my country," says Gladys.

"Many disabled people are desperate and do not trust themselves. All they desire is to give birth, hoping to win the esteem of their communities," says Donatien Nzobonimpa. © UNFPA Burundi / Queen Nyeniteka

Disabled people are often forgotten when it comes to people being informed and empowered on matters such as their reproductive rights. "This awareness raising about family planning has brought more light," says Donatien Nzobonimpa, from the province of Ngozi. "We had many questions and confusion around it. Many disabled people are desperate and do not trust themselves. All they desire is to give birth, hoping to win the esteem of their communities. This has really opened our eyes and minds.”

Adidja Mugisha is an albino and mother of two. She had heard that contraceptive methods could have negative effects. "Some people told me that women who use contraceptive methods eventually become cancerous, and even have a lot of bleeding. This allowed me to ask lots of questions and be reassured. I thank those who thought of us because now we no longer feel excluded.” She expressed a desire to reach out to others, especially her albino sisters, and inform them of the importance of practising family planning.

Little access to education, employment

While the number of disabled people in Burundi is thought to be high, no census of people with disabilities has yet been carried out at national level. The very first General Census of Population and Housing that integrated disability issues took place in 2008, and the draft report placed the total population at around 8.5 million. In this census, statistical data on people with handicaps placed them at 4.5 per cent of the population.

According to UNDP, the United Nations Development Programme, the literacy rate for adults with disabilities does not exceed 3 per cent, while that of disabled women in particular is 1 per cent. This shows that they have very little access to education and employment.

Through awareness campaigns such as this one, UNFPA in partnership with the government is contributing to enhanced awareness of the benefits of family planning, for improved reproductive health among people with disabilities. Overall, it contributes to sustainable and equitable development, taking into account a potential demographic dividend for Burundi.

By Queen Nyeniteka