The rights of persons with disabilities have gained more recognition than ever before in Fiji, particularly in the areas of education and sports. Persons with disabilities have also been engaging more in decision making as board members of the Fiji Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission, Legal Aid Commission and the Electoral Commission. This was shared by Senimilia Seru, the co-coordinator of the Access to Justice Program of the Fiji Disabled Persons Federation (FDPF), during the celebration of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, on 3 December.
Ms Seru shared her observations on the progress of the realization on the rights of persons with disabilities in Fiji, namely that Fiji’s education system, including primary, secondary and tertiary education, is better able to accommodate the needs of persons with disabilities when compared to 10 years ago. More and more children with disabilities are enjoying the opportunity to get an education, acquire qualifications and are able to look for employment. She also finds more inclusive attitudes in sports, like track, table tennis, rugby, and soccer, all of which have seen encouragement for more persons with disabilities to participate, with some winning medals in national and international sporting competitions.
At the same time, she pointed out, there are areas which need more improvement, such as public transport and public health services to enable persons with different disabilities to enjoy their human rights the same way as persons without disabilities. Some of the critical areas of improvement include physical accessibility, usability, personal communication and access to information.
Ms Seru started work with FDPF in January 2017, as one of two representatives from the United Blind Persons of Fiji, which is an FDPF affiliated organization, in FDPF’s Disability Rights Fund Program. In 2019, Ms Seru expanded her human rights advocacy as co-coordinator of the Access to Justice Programme which was established in FDPF with support from the European Union-funded Fiji Access to Justice Project implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The FDPF is one of four civil society organizations (CSOs) which have been supported through the grants created by the project for CSOs to strengthen their provision of justice support services to most marginalised groups in society.
The Fiji Access to Justice Project supports access to justice, in particular for impoverished and vulnerable groups. It does so by empowering people to access their legal rights and services, strengthening key justice institutions to deliver improved services, and strengthening the capacity of CSOs to deliver justice accompaniment services, with a special focus on supporting persons with disabilities and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
The FDPF Access to Justice Programme conducts access audits to assess justice institutions, including Police stations, courts and offices of the Legal Aid Commission, identifying whether their premises and services are accessible to different types of disabilities and how access might be improved. This year the audit was expanded and conducted in the Central, Western and Northern Divisions. It found that some parking spaces, entrances and interview rooms were not accessible to persons living with different types of disabilities. The members identified the availability of sign language interpreters and emphasized the need for better understanding of the rights of persons with disabilities among the first contact points for the public in these institutions which stand to be improved.
Through the commemoration of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities this year, the world is focusing on ‘Building Back Better: toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 World’. The United Nations says the global crisis of COVID-19 is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing the extent of exclusion and highlighting that work on disability inclusion is imperative.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has had little direct impact in terms of infections in Fiji, the Government responses and measures implemented have left persons with disabilities more vulnerable, anxious and stressed. Physical distancing and movement restrictions implemented, including lockdowns, gathering restrictions and a night-time curfew have meant different arrangements had to be made so persons living with disabilities who rely on personal assistants services were still able to continue their living their daily lives with the support they need.
“Accessing essential services like health services, shopping centers, many persons with disabilities felt fear as we were not sure how the new measures and procedures for COVID-19 prevention were made inclusive or accessible to us. We felt equally or more stressed about our safety in terms of getting infected by COVID-19 and taking it home to our elderly loved ones. It took us a while to be able to organise ourselves to adjust to the ‘new normal,’ said Ms Seru.
“COVID-19 also highlighted areas which need to be developed to enable persons with disabilities to exercise their rights, namely the system for providing support services. The majority of persons with disabilities need support services, such as personal support and peer to peer support groups, to ensure their participation in every aspect of life is on an equal basis with others,” Ms Seru added.
As the sole bread winner for her family with two young daughters, 13-year-old Vanessa and 14-month-old Emily-Ann, and her retired parents, Ms. Seru said she started to work with FDPF to secure employment and provide for her family. Engaging more in the human rights programs in FDPF, she has met many persons with disabilities who have been experiencing discrimination but unable to make their voices heard, have not known their rights or the mechanisms in place that would assist them to realize their rights.
Ms Seru shared her commitment, “I made it my goal to fully dedicate my work to those persons with disabilities who have not been aware of their abilities. I raise my voice and go to lobby for changes on behalf of them. Inclusive society will be for all, with or without disabilities, will be comfortable to everyone to be able to pursue each dream and support each other.”
Fiji is one of 182 countries which committed themselves to the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The CRPD clearly puts forth that embracing disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity for all, and helping societies to restructure policies, practices and attitudes as well as dismantling social and economic barriers that prevent the full participation of persons with disabilities, are critical to inclusive development.
Disability inclusion is recognized in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The 2030 Agenda's central pledge to leave no-one behind offers a new opportunity to help strengthen the rights of persons with disabilities.
“Societies will never achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) without the full participation of everyone, including people with disabilities. Upholding the rights of people with disabilities is a moral imperative. But it is not an act of charity. It is a recognition of rights and a practical necessity, if we are to build healthy, sustainable societies to the benefit of everyone – those with disabilities, and those without.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said.
The Fiji Access to Justice Project aims to contribute towards achievement of Fiji’s SDGs, with focus on Goal 5: Gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls; and Goal 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions.
For media queries, please contact:
Tomoko Kashiwazaki, Effective Governance Programme, UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; tel: +679 331 2500 or mob: +679 942 2193;