Karma, Rebirth and Disability: Challenging the stigma in Burma

29 May 2019

Influences of Buddhism are estimated to have reached two billion people currently alive, according to the Independent Living Institute. The study finds that in Asia, where there is a long history of Buddhist teaching and practice, the concept of karma and rebirth continues to play a substantial role in influencing cultural and social responses to disability. In some societies, disability is viewed as punishment for an individual’s actions in past lifetimes and is seen as something that should be suffered in hopes for better karma in the next.

In Burma, the association with negative karma and being born with a learning disorder, physical condition or any other impairment contributes to the deeply entrenched stigma surrounding disability. 4.6 percent of the population are currently unaccounted for: trapped in poverty and exclusion from everyday life activities, disabled people are facing discrimination across all levels of society as they encounter cultural, physical and social barriers that other citizens do not. The stigma, thought to be rooted in the belief that karma decides an individual’s fate in rebirth – and the body they are born into – perpetuates damaging attitudes towards disabled people and a cultural acceptance that their suffering is necessary. The most recent reports on disability rights and the quality of life for people with disabilities in Burma underscore the need for rehabilitative healthcare, as well as inclusive policy-making to confront the loss or limitation of educational and employment opportunities for over two million disabled people in the country.

The lack of care for disabled people is a growing problem in a country deeply affected by conflict. Across Burma there are many ongoing clashes and inter-communal conflicts that are resulting in severe and life-altering injuries, mainly limb-loss, but also visual, psychological and hearing damage inflicted by landmines and bomb explosions. In 2016 and 2017 combined, 337 landmine casualties were reported, with conflict-affected states of Kachin and Shan hit hardest.

Unicef representative to Burma, June Kunugi claims “even though we know many incidents go unreported, every second day an accident caused by a landmine happens in Myanmar. Sadly, children and women bear the brunt”. Almost half of those injured by landmines in 2017 were women and children, magnifying a human rights issue in which women and girls with disabilities face ‘double discrimination’, and are placed at a higher risk of gender-based violence, sexual abuse, neglect and exploitation, according to the UN. Lauo Nguen, one of Shan Women’s Action Network’s auxiliary midwives, described how she has witnessed this in her work:

“One woman has been intellectually disabled since birth. A man in the village took advantage of her disability – he raped her and she became pregnant. Hidden away, she gave birth with no help from Community Health Workers. I gave the grandmother advice on how to support the mother and her new-born baby. I also provided effective contraception to ensure she will not fall pregnant under those traumatic circumstances again.”

The need to reconceptualise disability as something that is neither suffered nor hidden away is also underscored by the link between birth defects and high malnutrition rates in Burma, which is thought to have resulted in the stunting of a third of the country’s children. According to a study by Paediatrics and International Child Health, countries with high levels of malnutrition and nutrient deficiency often report higher rates of disability and developmental delay. Estimates indicate that 50 % of the population across Shan, Rakhine and Chin states are facing severe food insecurity. As a result, maternal malnutrition, which is impacted both by poverty and unhealthy superstitions and practices in pregnancy, is affecting the development of many children, and increasing the risk of infants being born with or developing an impairment.

On our recent trip, the HART team recognised the need for rehabilitative healthcare after visiting one of the only centres that cares for people with disabilities in Burma. The Ayemittya Centre in Yangon, which was founded to care for children with a range of disabilities, is situated in a poor township with a population of 800,000 from which it draws the majority of the children for whom it cares. Their disabilities include blindness, deafness, Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism.

The centre has won a grant to build a 3-storey extension behind the current building which is now under construction. It will be equipped with a lift and ramps, and have room for an indoor playground, classrooms and dormitories. Recognised by the Burmese government, from which it receives a small annual grant to help with running costs, the Ayemittya Centre is helping to break ground in improving the lives of disabled people in Burma, and its commitment to care for them is one of the first but vital steps in dispelling the stigma.

Two children we had the pleasure of meeting at the Ayemittya Centre in April.
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