Event Summary: Protecting the Rights of People with Mental Disabilities in Africa


The New York City Bar Association hosted a program on “Protecting the Rights of People with Mental Disabilities in Africa” on February 6, 2013. The distinguished panelists discussed the legal and cultural challenges to assisting such people and described some of the horrific practices now used, suggesting ways to stop such treatment.

The moderator, Professor Arlene S. Kanter introduced the panelists and noted that the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was finally adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 2006. Parties to the Convention are required to promote, protect, and ensure the full enjoyment of human rights by persons with disabilities and ensure that they enjoy full equality under the law. But, Professor Kanter noted that abuse of the mentally-disabled was common in many international institutions as well as in the U.S., which has not as yet ratified the CRPD. However, she said that awareness is being raised by the U.N., Human Rights Watch (HRW) and by the Mental Disability Advocacy Center (MDAC). Professor Kanter is a distinguished professor of law and Director of the Disability Law and Policy Program at Syracuse University.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Disability, Shuaib Chalklen, noted the problems in helping mentally-disabled people in Africa. First, there is no legal infrastructure to support the CRPD, no one in government to work with and no way to hold governments responsible. If there are laws, there is no implementation of them. Only two cases have been brought in Africa, in Zambia and South Africa, regarding disabled people, but not mentally-disabled ones. To address the problems facing people with disabilities in Africa and to strengthen  the participation of civil society organizations working on their behalf, Mr. Chalklen has been working on the establishment of an African Disability Forum. Mr. Chalken is also working with the Pan African Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry, a network of organizations made up of mental health users in several African countries.

Human Rights Watch’s Med Ssengooba, detailed his research in Ghana where he found mentally-disabled people chained to trees for so long that they had difficulty walking, beatings by staff, no toilet facilities and confinement to cubicles in the only three institutions for mentally disabled people in Ghana, all far removed from access to main services. He also found these conditions in so-called “prayer camps” where it is believed that mental disability is a curse of the gods. These findings were published in a graphic HRW report titled “Like a Death Sentence”, a quote from one of the inmates, that includes a recommendation to the government to alleviate the conditions in psychiatric hospitals and allow inmates to leave when they want to, which presently isn’t permitted. Although Ghana has a mental health law, it has many gaps. Three million people suffer from mental disabilities in Ghana many of whom are forced to be admitted to hospitals by the police or their families, who often beat them.

Mental Disability Advocacy Center’s Director, Lycette Nelson, who organized the program, said that the her organization, the Mental Disability Advocacy Center (MDAC) has worked in Africa since 2009 and has done research on issues facing people with intellectual and psycho-social disabilities in Kenya, Zambia, and South Africa.  The research revealed a wide range of abuses in traditional healing centers, psychiatric hospitals, homes and communities. Ms. Nelson called attention to the problem of lack of access to justice for people who have suffered human rights violations. In the South African study, for example, many of the women interviewed had been victims of sexual violence but never reported the abuse, or if they did, there was never any action taken, despite the clear obligation of governments under Article 16 of the CRPD to provide mechanisms for the reporting and investigation of abuses. The way to dispel the reprehensible practices is to identify the violations and facilitate access to courts and other redress mechanisms for people with psycho-social and intellectual disabilities by providing access to attorneys and advocates and working with organizations of people with disabilities to identify cases and provide support for people who are willing to bring claims.

Lawyer and psychiatrist Steven Datlof told of the problems in writing a mental health law for Liberia which his team did at the government’s request. He said there is very little infrastructure for mental health help in Liberia and only one psychiatrist in a county of four million people. Mentally-disabled people go to traditional healers for a cure, but these healers do not believe in any accessible Western medicine to address mental health problems. Many people suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after the long, brutal civil war. Helpful programs are those that train mental health workers, mostly nurses who can determine the treatment mentally-disabled people should get and who should be admitted to a hospital. Mr. Datlof said that interest and enthusiasm in the new law was evidenced in a stakeholder’s meeting after the law was completed.

Following the panel, questions and comments were taken from the audience including one about the use of quasi-judicial mental health tribunals that can listen to complaints and give decisions on alleged abuses. One attendee questioned the effectiveness of psychiatric help to which a panelist agreed that mental health should not just be a medical issue, but that all avenues should be taken and cultural attitudes addressed and changed. In answer to questions, panelists agreed that awareness, litigation and access to justice would help the plight of people with mental disabilities.

The program was initiated by the City Bar’s Committee on African Affairs and sponsored by the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice, the Committee on Mental Health Law and the Committee on Legal Issues Affecting People with Disabilities.