Breaking Down the Barriers (Disabled in Syria)

A lack of street ramps, handicap-accessible buildings and low-floor buses makes Syria decidedly disabled unfriendly. An ambitious plan by civil and public organisations aims to change that.

 

Hazim Ibrahim, a translator in his thirties who was left wheelchair bound after an early-childhood accident, says his mind is like “Google Maps”.

“I know by heart which streets are ramped and on which ones cars park and block the way,” Ibrahim said.

Venturing out independently in Damascus requires him to maintain an encyclopaedia-like knowledge of his home city’s physical layout. Even then, getting around is a struggle. Damascus may have ranked number seven on the New York Times list of top destinations for 2010, but for the mobility impaired, moving around the city is a daily nightmare. Gutters are deep and footpaths are narrow and uneven. Elevators are rare, as are building ramps and accessible public transportation. Cars park wherever they can, creating an ever-changing obstacle course.

“I can’t use public transportation,” Ibrahim said. “Riding minibuses in a wheelchair is simply impossible and I can’t ride regular buses unless passengers volunteer to carry me in and out of them.”

Disabled-friendly plan

Frustrated with the plight of the disabled in Syria, Ibrahim decided to take action. He joined the National Council for Disabilities Affairs (NCDA), a joint council staffed by representatives from six Syrian ministries and several NGOs, in addition to a number of experts and people with disabilities. It has been lobbying for the rights of the disabled since 2004.

Syria is also a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which came into force in 2008. The convention aims to protect the rights and dignity of people with disabilities. Specifically, it demands that governments take measures to ensure disabled people can live and move about independently by ensuring that roads and buildings provide disabled access.

AMAAL, The Syrian Organization for the Disabled, is also playing a leading role in promoting the rights of the disabled. Established by Syria’s First Lady Asma al-Assad in 2002, AMAAL drafted a national plan focusing on the rehabilitation of people with disabilities in 2007. Endorsed by NCDA the following year, its effects have started to become visible in the past few months, with audible and tactile signals appearing on traffic lights throughout the capital.

Traffic lights are only part of the plan, Tarif Bakdash, general secretary of NCDA, said. The organisation has also prepared a building code to make Syria more disabled-friendly. The code, which will be binding by the end of the year, requires all buildings and public venues, such as parks, to provide wheelchair ramps, accessible toilets and elevators with audible controls for the hearing impaired and tactile controls – such as the Braille reading system – for the visually impaired. For its part, the Ministry of Transport says it aims to import 1,000 handicap-accessible buses by the end of 2011 and it is working to ensure that 25 percent of the public bus fleet provided by private companies will eventually provide wheelchair access.

The over-arching goal of all these efforts is to remove the factors that inhibit the life of the disabled in Syria, Bakdash said.

“My poor sight disables me from seeing clearly, but with my glasses on that’s no longer the case,” he said. “In this sense it’s not my poor sight, but rather the lack of glasses, which disables me. Failing to remove the obstacles that people with visual, hearing and moving impairments face in Syria is what actually disables them from living like anyone else.”

The workload confronting organisations like AMAAL and the NCDA is immense. A case-in-point is the lack of accurate statistics on the number of people with disabilities in Syria. To provide a more comprehensive picture, the NCDA is in the process of carrying out a nationwide survey of the country’s disabled community to evaluate their needs and better tailor government policy to meet them.

“We need to know the numbers and kinds of disabilities Syrians suffer from and where are they located,” Bakdash said.

Past government policies aimed at assisting the disabled have not always been as successful as originally intended. For example, the government passed legislation instructing private companies that employ more than 50 workers to offer 2 percent of their positions to persons with disabilities. Public institutions must offer 4 percent. But despite such legislation, many disabled people cannot pursue employment because their mobility challenges prevent them from attending school. This then makes them unqualified for suitable work opportunities.

“It’s the ‘chicken and egg’ dilemma – a vicious circle,” Ibrahim said. “Many people with disabilities are poorly educated so they can’t find a job. But it’s the difficulty of movement and the lack of an accessible educational system which prevents them from getting a proper education in the first place. But there’s no use sitting and crying over the past. We have to take measurable steps towards a more accessible Syria.”

Preventing Future Disabilities

Rami Khalil, executive director of AMAAL, said the need to improve access for the disabled was particularly acute in Syria since he believes the country has a particularly large disabled population.

“Marriage between relatives, poor health care for mothers and pregnant women, irregular vaccinations, malnutrition and a high accident rate make Syria a big disabled-generating country,” he said.

In addition to making the country more disabled friendly, NCDA is also planning to decrease the number of Syrians with disabilities. A key part of this strategy is to improve the safety of homes and workplaces to reduce the number of accidents which can result in mobility impairments. While NCDA admits that change will take time, people like Ibrahim are hopeful that things will get better for the country’s disabled.

“It will probably take another two generations for things to change, but I’m optimistic,” he said. “A disability lies in the environment and not in the person. If you remove the barriers, people with disabilities will become full participants in society. But they need to be empowered. They can’t dig their way through life alone.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Cold Comfort

A government decision to deny divorced women, orphans and unmarried men a special allowance for heating oil has caused uproar in Syria’s civil society movement and among women’s rights activists.

Photo Fadi al-Hamwi

When the Ministry of Local Administration announced last November that it would distribute a SYP 10,000 (USD 217) allowance for heating oil to the population, many Syrians breathed a sigh of relief. In February, however, this collective sigh turned into a gasp of horror when Minister for Local Administration Tamer al-Hijeh announced that the allowance would not apply to single or divorced women, widows, bachelors and orphans.

“Last year the ministry gave a similar allowance to all Syrians and Palestinian refugees residing in Syria,” Sadik Abu Watfe, an assistant to the minister of Local Administration, said. “This year, however, the allowance will only be allocated to those in need.”

The needy, according to Abu Watfe, are Syrians and Palestinian refugees who live permanently in the country and do not have a financial stake in more than one car, a residential or commercial piece of real estate or agricultural land. They also have to own a family book, which is a certificate delivered to every Syrian and Syrian-Palestinian groom when he gets married, in which his wife and later his children are registered. Women are never issued with a family book, except if their husband dies, although not all widows have one.

“Why is the right to the heating allowance associated with the family book?” Da’ad Mousa, a Syrian lawyer and activist, said. “This means that a whole segment of society has no right to heating in winter. Furthermore, second, third and fourth wives who live in separate houses don’t get an allowance because while the husband may have four wives, he is only issued with one family book.”

In short, unless a woman has a husband or her husband’s family book, she is not eligible for a heating allowance. Furthermore, according to the minister’s instructions, even divorced women who are in the possession of their father’s family book are not eligible for the allowance because only the head of the family registered in the family book (or his wife if he has passed away or is ill) can apply for the allowance. Syrian women married to foreigners are also ruled out because their husbands do not receive the all-important document.

The minister’s announcement has caused uproar within the country’s civil society movement, with local press describing the move as “a punishment to women” that is “against the Syrian constitution”. The Syrian Communist Party also vehemently denounced the decision, saying it was a form of discrimination against women, not just because of the link being made between the right to a heating allowance and the family book, but also because women cannot even obtain a family book.

“We have always demanded and we still demand that a woman’s right to independence in all matters be acknowledged, especially with regards to civil and personal status law,” an editorial published on February 24 in the Syrian Communist Party newspaper Al-Nour stated. “This includes giving women a family book in case their parents die, they don’t get married, are divorced or widowed. This would release them from their complete dependence on their families, husbands, ex-husbands or late husbands.”

No way out

Despite the public outcry, Mousa says little can be done to change the situation.

“This is a government allowance,” she said. “No legal procedure can force the ministry to extend it to women as well.” It is a reality that is hard to accept for women like Kamar Habasheye, 50, who has been divorced for three years. With no diploma in hand and in fragile health, finding a job is no easy task. Since her three daughters got married, Habasheye lives alone, surviving off a monthly income of SYP 2,000 (USD 43) that she receives from an Islamic charity. She tries to supplement this meagre amount by taking on the occasional cleaning job, which earns her another SYP 1,500 (USD 32) a month.

“I simply can’t make ends meet,” Habasheye said. “Every week I have to spend a few days at my parents’ house and another couple of days at my brother’s place so as not to starve. I desperately need this allowance. The winters are getting colder every year and I have no idea what to do.”

Habasheye is one of many women hoping for a change in this year’s heating allowance distribution scheme. However, according to Abu Watfe, the funds allocated to the heating allowances have already been distributed, making it pointless to change the eligibility criteria.

“We’ve already distributed the majority of the allowances, covering eighty-five percent of Syrian families,” Abu Watfe said, adding that the ministry could make an exception in extreme cases. “While they are not eligible for the heating allowance, women who are extremely hard up could come to the ministry and ask for help,” he said.“We might investigate their case.

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LEFT OUT IN THE COLD

In February, the Ministry for Local Administration announced that the heating allowance, provided under Law No. 29 of November 19, 2009, does not apply to:

• A divorced woman whose father, mother, brothers and sisters are married. The allowance will only be allocated to the head of the family registered in the family book, or his wife in case he has passed away or is ill.

• A divorced woman who has lost her parents and does not have a family book.

• Underage children who do not have their late parents’ family book.

• A widow who does not have a family book, even if she lives in Syria permanently.

• A bachelor whose parents passed away and who does not have a family book, or whose family book is in the possession of his stepmother.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Personal Status Matters

A campaign to halt proposed changes to Syria’s personal status code is being hailed as a milestone for the country’s civil society movement.

Syria’s civil rights movement is celebrating a successful campaign to freeze proposed changes to the country’s personal status code which they say would have reversed years of hard fought advances for women’s rights and secular personal liberties.

The campaign, heavily utilising social media forums such as Facebook, was launched three months ago after a new draft law written to replace the entire Personal Status Law of 1953 was leaked to the public. Shocked civil rights groups, MPs and religious figures argued the draft law reinforced old laws in desperate need of amendment and added new clauses which took Syria backwards. Activists described the proposed law as “frightening” and accused the committee responsible for writing it of trying to impose extremist Islamic views “similar to those of the Taliban” on Syria.

Meanwhile, shades of grey in the draft about whether or not the laws would apply to all of the country’s different religious communities added more fuel to the flames.

Arguing that the draft law contradicted the Syrian constitution, interfered with the rulings of Syria’s religious courts and reversed forward thinking on women’s and children’s rights, civil society groups compelled the government to recently declare the draft, officially at least, cancelled. The relentless campaign launched on the web in opposition to the draft stands as a milestone for the country’s civil society movement.

“The campaign that activists launched against this draft law signified progress for civil society,” Antoine Mousleh, head of St. John’s Church in Damascus, said. “The boundaries were lifted when it came to criticism of the law, people were more open. A few years ago this may not have happened.”

A fiery debate

For supporters of the draft – publicly few and far between – the controversy is without merit. They deny the draft is extremist, arguing it complies with sharia law as all personal status matters should.

“I wasn’t surprised by the draft law, it’s very similar to the current one,” Khalid Rashwani, a lawyer specialising in criminal and sharia law, said. “Certain people interested in women’s rights issues made a big fuss about the matter, but there was no need. Personal status laws should follow sharia law and in sharia law the rights of women are specified, so we should accept this. Why is it being likened to the Taliban? Most people in Syria agree that sharia should be applied in personal and family law.”

Rashwani’s position is rejected by activists such as Bassam Kadi, director of the Syrian Women’s Observatory. Kadi said the draft does not represent the views of the majority of Syrians, but those of a minority who are abusing the term sharia to impose their extremist views.

“This draft law doesn’t represent the views of society or the government,” he said. “Sharia is too broad a term to apply here. Sharia is everything that has been laid down as laws by Muslims, so if you say this draft complies with sharia laws then you must specify which ones. Sharia can be what Osama Bin Laden or anyone says it is. In this case, sharia is being used as an excuse to apply extremist Islamic laws.”

One of the most controversial articles in the draft law was Article 21. It prescribed the creation of a legal body with, among other powers, the authority to divorce a couple without their consent if one of them is deemed to be a murtad, a Muslim who has renounced his or her faith.

According to Rashwani, the authority of such a body is both necessary and legitimate. “If a man is considered a murtad, of course he should be divorced from his wife,” he said. “A Muslim woman can’t be married to a non-Muslim man, so an independent body should be able to divorce them.”

Contrary to this view, critics such as Kadi argue that nobody has the right to speculate about another person’s beliefs or to interfere in a marriage without at least one of the partner’s consent.

Pressure on moderates

Mohammed al-Habash, a member of parliament and director of the Islamic Studies Centre in Damascus, said the proposed law was an attempt to pressure moderate Muslims to conform to more conservative teachings. “This legal body could be used as a weapon to put pressure on moderate Muslims,” Habash said. “Either they follow the same beliefs and actions as the legal body does or they will be considered a murtad and consequently divorced from their partner.”

Other parts of the proposed law lambasted by critics include Articles 63 and 92 which prohibit secular people from marrying. “Every person has the right to marry regardless of his or her beliefs,” Habash said. “Therefore, I disagree with the attempt to prevent secular people from being allowed to marry.”

Restrictions were also proposed for interfaith wedlock outside the Islamic courts. Article 38 in the draft law states that a non-Muslim woman married to a Muslim man outside the Islamic courts cannot legally register the marriage unless her husband agrees. A Muslim man, on the other hard, can register a marriage even if his alleged wife denies it exists. “This law is completely unacceptable,” Mousleh said. “If a Muslim man says a woman is his wife, that’s it, she’s his wife no matter what she says. Her word counts for nothing. This law treats Christian women like women in the old days of war, when they were captured as trophies.”

Another cause for alarm was Article 140, which states: “A husband is obliged to pay expenses for his wife’s education according to his financial ability and as long as the wife’s study does not contradict with her family obligations”. Critics argue this article would mean young girls could lose their right to education, adding that it runs contrary to reforms that have raised the age of compulsory education to 15. “This law means that a husband can prevent his 13-year-old wife from studying, using the excuse that it affects her household duties,” Kadi said. “It tries to undermine progress made via reform of Syria’s education laws.

Activists were also angry the draft law still contained several clauses which they have long campaigned to change. Just like the current law, Article 45 in the draft law permits boys to marry at the age of 15 and girls at the age of 13. The reinforcement of this law dealt activists, who have worked hard to raise the age of marriage to 18, a huge blow. “Children at such an early age don’t even know what marriage means, let alone what it is to create a family of their own,” Kadi said. “The law should have been changed.”

Rashwani, however, said allowing marriage to take place at the ages of 13 for a girl and 15 for a boy was not only suitable in certain cases, but sometimes a necessity. “Boys and girls living in Deir ez-Zor, for example, become mature earlier due to the tough circumstances in the Jazeera region, therefore they should be allowed to marry younger,” he said. “Sometimes it’s even necessary for a young girl to marry earlier because when both parents die, she has nobody to look after her.”

Drafted in secret

Critics of the proposed law are also deeply concerned about the manner in which it was drafted – it was drawn up in secret by a committee of anonymous sharia scholars, without the knowledge or input of other interested social and religious parties, and sent directly to the prime minister’s cabinet instead of parliament for public discussion.

“I call it a conspiracy because the draft wasn’t sent to parliament,” Kadi said, “The committee knew the reaction the draft would get which is why they didn’t put it to the press. They sent the draft to a few interested ministries and bodies with a note which gave a deadline for comments within a week. A week is not enough time to read such a large law, let alone comment.”

Habash echoed similar concerns. “The prime minister gave permission to the [former] minister of justice to choose the committee, but unfortunately he only chose from one corner of Syrian society,” he said. “Most Syrians believe we should follow our religion when it comes to personal status matters. But that doesn’t mean we should only ask one sect. All groups need to be consulted when it comes to such a significant law.”

There has been much speculation about why such a select committee was given the authority to write the draft law. According to Kadi, the government was just as surprised by the content of the draft law as civil rights groups. “The government followed procedures and asked the justice minister at the time to set up the committee,” he said. “However, they didn’t keep checks on the committee and what it was writing. Before they knew it, this crazy draft law had been written and was causing controversy.”

While the proposed law has been shelved by the government – Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Mu’allem told the regional English-language newspaper The National last month it would never be passed – civil rights campaigners like Kadi say his fellow activists cannot rest on their laurels. Ultimately, Kadi said the blame for why such a draft law was able to reach such an advanced stage lies with civil society.

“The problem is that civil society organisations in Syria have a phobia of Islam – many dare not criticise wild interpretations of it because they’re scared of being labelled non-believers,” he said. “The content of this draft is civil society’s fault, because it hasn’t kept checks on extremist figures trying to infiltrate the system.”

I published this article with British journalist Fay Ferguson in Syria Today magazine