The corrugated iron door unlocks from the outside and pushes open slowly. A girl in a faded dress and green sandals looks up as the unforgiving African sun pierces the room. She does not move. Sitting on a wooden chair, she is tethered by a length of thin cloth, fastened tight around her wrist.
Catherine is 12 years old. Small for her age, she looks even younger sitting in the dark, hands resting in her lap. For more than half her life she has been locked inside this hut, no bigger than a garden shed. She sleeps on the concrete floor without a mattress, between sacks of dried cassava. Chickens with which she shares the storeroom roost in baskets.
“This should not be a normal thing,” sighs Fred Alimet, a pastor in this swathe of countryside in Soroti District, in Uganda’s east, where farmers live with their families in mud-brick huts built on terracotta dirt. “But because this child has a disability she is being hidden.”
Pastor Fred wipes the sweat from his forehead and kneels down to loosen the cloth around Catherine’s arm. She recoils, so he calls in her mother. Not a word is spoken as she unties the tether, and Catherine stands and walks outside into the early afternoon.
The girl’s mother, Sarah Akello, does not live here. Akello’s husband rejected Catherine because she has a disability, believing her to be cursed or another man’s child. “The father doesn’t want to see her,” says Pastor Fred, translating Akello’s words. “The father is asking the mother how she got this child. The other seven children are OK but this one is having a problem.”
Akello lives with her husband, but walks the three-kilometre bush tracks from her home to sit outside the hut where her youngest child has been hidden since she was five. Akello explains that Catherine is locked away here, on her oldest son’s plot of land, because of what will happen to her if she wanders off. Like many children in Uganda, Catherine has never been diagnosed with a specific condition, but she is disabled – and that makes her a target.
“Sometimes when she leaves here she gets beaten from outside, she gets abused,” Akello says. “She has been beaten many times.” Standing three feet away, absently present, nobody speaks to Catherine. When the caseworkers leave she is returned to the hut, the piece of cloth with small blue flowers tied back around her wrist.
Here, people with physical or intellectual disabilities are often considered a burden; unable to work, or to learn. Stigma is fuelled by beliefs that people with disabilities are cursed. Some believe disability is caused by sin; a promiscuous mother or the wrongdoing of ancestors. Some believe disabled people are possessed. Some believe they are not human at all. Disabled children rank among the most socially outcast and vulnerable in Uganda. They are more likely to be denied healthcare, less likely to go to school, at higher risk of abuse and sexual violence. Across the country, these children are hidden away, warehoused out of sight, or worse.
Al Jazeera visited Uganda earlier this year to meet dozens of disabled children and document the experiences of some of the families that try to care for them. Their stories share the thread of social exclusion, their struggle exacerbated by extreme poverty.