UNITED NATIONS // With her six-year stint as the UN's special rapporteur on disability drawing to a close, Sheikha Hissa Khalifa Al Thani questions whether handicapped people in the Arab world will ever get a fair deal.
During her time in office, Sheikha Hissa, a relative of Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, has travelled from Morocco to Yemen, bringing together those with disabilities and government officials to promote equitable laws. The UN's outgoing disability watchdog describes the Arab region as lagging behind the rest of the world. "Disabled people are more marginalised and more isolated than other people. But specifically in the Arab region, they are invisible, because of negative social attitudes and the lack of a human rights culture," Sheikha Hissa said.
"It doesn't need to be this way. We don't have the same problems as the developing world, which suffers from a lack of resources. Countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia could have standards like Scandinavian countries - but there is this obstacle, which is the lack of awareness." Sheikha Hissa was appointed as the UN's disability inquisitor by Kofi Annan, the former secretary general, in 2003, making her one of the few people from the Gulf to hold a senior post in the world body.
Her three-year mandate to monitor and report on global conditions for handicapped people was extended in 2006 and she will complete her term at the end of the year. With only a skeleton team, the Qatari royal has counselled politicians and handicapped people around the world, defining a set of 324 measures to ensure governments provide equal opportunities in hospitals, schools and the workplace. Her key focus has remained the Arab world, and she will likely return to a regional position after hosting a swansong conference and ending her office on Dec 31.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, said he "welcomed and supported Sheikha Hissa's continued work in this area and leadership in the region", according to a spokesman. Sheikha Hissa was exposed to the difficulties experienced by disabled Arabs during her childhood, watching a polio-afflicted family friend struggle with a wheelchair. In the early 1980s, she undertook voluntary work at Doha's hospitals and rehabilitations clinics while studying social sciences and sociology at Qatar University.
"During this time, I took part in conferences, and it was here that I noticed something different about the way people with disabilities were discussed in the Arab world," she said. "It was like people were talking from a charitable perspective, like they were taking pity on them." She took these ideas to Helena University in Egypt, writing a thesis on care programmes for deaf Qatari children and graduating with a master's degree in social planning and social services in 1999. As rapporteur, Sheikha Hissa has advocated what she calls the "human rights approach". Disabled people should be entitled to the same rights to work, education and health care as everybody else - and granting these rights is a prerequisite rather than a concession, she said.
Conferences held in Amman, Rabat, Sana'a and Beirut since 2005 have brought politicians and disabled people face to face in a bid to generate discussion and debunk stereotypes. "In many cases, this was the first time an Arab legislator had sat at the same table as somebody with disabilities and talked to them about their rights," Sheikha Hissa said during an interview with The National in her midtown Manhattan hotel.
She can reel off numerous examples that illustrate what she describes as her "struggle" against the attitude of Arab leaders. "We had spent a long time at one of the conferences really exhausting the topic. Then, a parliamentarian from Bahrain got up and said those who had been plagued by disability during their lives would be rewarded in heaven," she said. "But this was not the point. He was again saying that you have to be patient, but really we should be trying to make things better for disabled people now."
At another conference, Sheikha Hissa felt she had convinced one Kuwaiti politician of the "need for equalisation for all members of society, especially minority groups". "But after that, I heard him being interviewed on the radio, talking about women in Kuwait's parliament. He said this would be the greatest shame on the nation if women were equal to men," said Sheikha Hissa. A global UN treaty that came into force in May, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, held out some hope for improvements after being signed or ratified by most Arab governments.
Signatories are bound to address the social, economic and cultural barriers that block disabled people from enjoying the benefits afforded to the able-bodied. But Sheikha Hissa warns that treaty signings mean nothing if Arab politicians do not build the principles into law and improve conditions for handicapped people on the ground. Meanwhile, a social tradition of inter-family marriage leaves newborns highly susceptible to genetic defects.
Studies by the Dubai-based Centre for Arab Genomic Studies have found that people in the region experience among the highest global rates of genetic disorders, leading Sheikha Hissa to advocate for pre-martial genetic tests and caution against marrying relatives. "Despite all this progress, we are seeing in the Gulf, you still see this problem. I have visited families where the parents have had seven children, and all of them suffer from visual impairments. Or another case where there were four children and all were deaf," she said. "Of course, this is a matter of intermarriage. There should be more awareness on the part of the doctors, who should advise these families to think about stopping. And then again, there are families that do not want to listen. Again, it is about the culture."