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AS IT IS

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This is AS IT IS.

Hello, I'm Caty Weaver. On the show today, we tell how the Disabilities Act in Sierra Leone is helping the disabled become police officers.

We also learn about an interesting new banking system for women in South Sudan.

But first, we go to South Africa, a country that one human rights organization says experienced setbacks in 2012.

South Africa has long been praised for setting an example of human rights on the African continent. The nation operates under one of the world's most liberal constitutions and has many private newspapers, and radio and television stations. But Human Rights Watch says two events in 2012 have set back democracy in South Africa. Christopher Cruise has our report.

One was the police shooting of black protesters. Thirty-four striking mine workers were killed. Cameron Jacobs, the director of Human Rights Watch for South Africa, says the nation needs to work hard to keep the freedoms it fought for after the end of white minority rule.

The events at the mine in Marikana showed the terrible conditions that many black workers face almost 20 years after the end of racial separation. South African police say they fired on the miners in self-defense. The government is investigating.

The miners went on strike in August to seek higher pay from the platinum mining company Lonmin. The company said this month it will improve working conditions in the mines.

Cameron Jacobs says his group also is worried that lawmakers will approve the Protection of State Information Bill this year. Local and international media in South Africa strongly oppose the bill. They say it will restrict press freedom.

Kayum Ahmed is head of the South African Human Rights Commission. He admits the nation has many human rights problems. But he believes life is getting better for his people.

"I think it's certainly been a terrible year, but I do also see instances of hope and of optimism."

Human Rights Watch says the South African government has made some improvements. These include increased farmworkers' rights and right for homosexuals. I'm Christopher Cruise.

South Sudan is one of the worst places to be a woman. It has the highest death rate for pregnant women and new mothers in the world. Slowly, aid agencies have begun to help South Sudanese women take more control of their lives. Milagros Ardin has more.

Under a tree, women gather, singing and dancing. They are waiting for the bank to open. The bank is also under the tree. It is a simple wooden box made secure by small metal locks.

Teresa Ajok Aduong is the only one of the women who can read. She is the director of this box bank in Rumbek, Lakes State. The women can use their money to buy shares in the bank. The money can then be lent to bank members, who pay it back with interest.

Only about 16 percent of women in South Sudan can read.

Teresa Ajok Aduong says while the nation was part of Sudan, women were not permitted to do business. Now, some women are selling things in the market or

fresh homegrown fruits and vegetables. But she says few men understand that women have "an important role in business."

At first, men were concerned about letting their wives join the bank. They accused the women of just sitting around and talking. Most have changed their opinion as they have seen their wealth grow. One husband, Akot Dal Machur, even joined the bank.

"He says he has learned that women are skillful, and whatever little money they have they can save."

Deborah Arach works for the International Rescue Committee. She has watched women who were trapped at home, with little hope, increase their worth.

"Now they have changed. They have become strong and they are proud of themselves. They have something to contribute at home also. They are feeling proud. Not like before – you depend on man. They are independent now."

She says the bank has also enabled women to work together – not only to make money, but to share ideas and solve problems. I'm Milagros Ardin.

The World Health Organization estimates 10 percent of people in Sierra Leone are living with a disability. But, for the first time in the country's history, people living with disabilities are now working in the police force. As we hear from June Simms, the new police officers want their actions to give others hope.

Sheka Conteh is one of four disabled officers working at the communications center of the Sierra Leone police force. He answers calls from the public.

Sheka Conteh has experience in information technology. He says when he saw the police were offering work to disabled people, he jumped at the chance. Because he is disabled, it has been difficult to find a job. He caught polio at the age of seven.

"I've faced a lot of discrimination in any community I find myself, but now I've started to see some positive changes, especially in the area of employment."

Francis Munu is the inspector general of the Sierra Leone police. He says when the Disability Act passed in 2011, finding jobs for those with disabilities became a major issue for the police force. He says those with disabilities bring a different face to the job.

"So that people can understand that policing is not just about using force all the time, we also need to engage people and communities."

Francis Munu says the program has been operating problem-free for several months. None of the officers are currently working on the street. But he says that could change in the future.

A group called Handicap International says 95 percent of the disabled in Sierra Leone are unemployed. Many people became disabled during the country's civil war in the 1990s, when rebel fighters cut off people's arms and legs.

Kabba Franklyn Bangura is president of the Sierra Leone union on disability issues. It is collecting information about people who have skills or experience to work in different job sectors. The plan is to organize a national press conference to publicize their skills to possible employers.

I'm June Simms.

And that's AS IT IS for today. I'm Caty Weaver.

We want to report on the issues and ideas of concern to you, in your world … as it is.

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