Roberval Tavares
Ashoka Fellow desde 1999   |   Paraguay

Marta Elisa Codas

Because of a recent move toward governmental decentralization in Paraguay, now is the right moment for the rights of people with disabilities to be recognized at all levels. Marta Codas is a great…
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Debido a un cambio reciente hacia la descentralización gubernamental en Paraguay, ahora es el momento adecuado para los derechos de las personas con discapacidad puedan ser reconocidos en todos los niveles. Marta es un gran estratega con una larga trayectoria de iniciativas en este ámbito. Su nueva visión abarca una combinación de la legislación nacional con servicios prestados localmente. Empujado por una federación de ámbito nacional se estableció, la legislación a nivel federal garantiza los derechos humanos, mientras que los estados y municipios, en colaboración con organizaciones de base comunitaria, proporcionan la salud y la educación, mientras que la sensibilización en torno a los temas de discapacidad.

This description of Marta Elisa Codas's work was prepared when Marta Elisa Codas was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999.


Because of a recent move toward governmental decentralization in Paraguay, now is the right moment for the rights of people with disabilities to be recognized at all levels. Marta Codas is a great strategist with a long trajectory of initiatives in this field. Her new vision encompasses a combination of national legislation with locally-provided services. Pushed forward by a country-wide federation she established, the federal-level legislation guarantees human rights while the states and municipalities, in partnership with community-based organizations, provide health and education while raising awareness around disability issues.

La idea nueva

Marta's legal framework will ensure that rights for people with disabilities are recognized at the national level. At the state and municipal levels, her network of "centers of responsibility" provide services within existing government structures across areas such as education, employment, and health. She is currently reaching 100,000 people with disabilities and their families and has active organizations in 11 of Paraguay's 17 states. Paraguay's democracy and the new National Constitution have led to general decentralization and the dissolution of health services in particular, presenting Marta with a problem as well as an opportunity. Before the state governments settle into place and find their roles, she is inserting cross-cutting services for people with disabilities into their agendas. Using her federation of parents and families, she is creating a revolution of demand on one hand and a high potential for the government and civil society to supply services on the other. She has pioneered local-level, civil society models of "one-stop shopping" service centers and has proved creatively that approaching the problem from both the national and the local levels offers concrete solutions.

El problema

The overarching theme of problems confronting people with disabilities and their families is that there is poor coverage for their rights and services in the legal, governmental, and social spheres. Laws about people with disabilities are too weak to improve the situation; moreover, the legislation does not have the backing of any autonomous agency to carry out the policies nor to coordinate the few activities taking place. There is no single government agency that thinks through or promotes needed activities. People with disabilities -- men, women, and children -- are the most marginalized of all marginalized people in Paraguay, as in many countries around the world. This is a theme that has not succeeded in garnering much attention in the field of human rights. At the global level, there is great pressure for the United Nations to hold an International Convention on this subject.According to Paraguayan census reports and surveys done from the last ten years, 12% of the general population has some type of disability. With other pressing social problems, this population went un-served during the 35-year dictatorship as well as during the past ten years of the democratic government.

La estrategia

Paraguay is in a grave political, economic, and social crisis, but now is the time to act. As the devolution of political power goes to the states, non-governmental organizations like Marta's are seeing more than ever that they cannot wait for the government. Marta is thus acting at both levels, locally and nationally. Her National Federation is active in 11 of 17 states and she is lobbying for the creation of centers in the remaining six.This opportunity is fortuitous, but not because it is easy to change the government's attitude, which is basically the same as that of the dictatorship, fully directed at maintaining the status quo. It is fortuitous because the state is no longer alone. Innumerable partners have emerged from across the country. Financing agencies have now entered the picture, representing resources available for women, children, young people, educational reform, health issues, the environment, and more. Marta has formed a key partnership with the hydro-electric plant at Itaipu, for example, which is financing her initiatives.At the local level, Marta's organizations fight discrimination against people with disabilities and to fill the gap of services to people with disabilities in the rural interior of Paraguay. She is working with communities and local organizations. Marta's innovative vision is centered on the effective use of human resources and materials available in the community. Mobilizing local citizens and designing a volunteer plan for health professionals, Marta has created a work model of direct service to the community, breaking the barriers of isolation and non-existent attendance to people with disabilities and their families. Secondly, she is proposing programs to municipal and state governments. Depending upon the availability of funding from local governments, Marta's proposal will create departments dedicated exclusively to this area and/or insert this theme as a cross-cutting subject for departments already in existence, such as health, education, and employment. Nationally, she is lobbying for her legislative proposal to establish a decentralized service system to this sector. Her national federation of parents is supporting her in this effort.

La persona

Marta Codas gave birth to a child with mental and physical disabilities because, due to her remote rural location, it was impossible for her to arrive at the hospital on time. In 1976, Marta founded APADEM, the association of family and friends of the disabled. In 1980, she founded a school which modeled inclusion for students with disabilities. In 1986, she founded APAMAP, the association for people with disabilities in the east of Paraguay. In 1988, she created VIDA, support for children with disabilities whose parents had been "disappeared" during the dictatorship. In 1990, she started St. Augustine's hostel, a care center for people with disabilities, and in 1997, she founded the National Federation. Today, she is well-known everywhere disabilities are discussed.Marta's long trajectory in this field indicates that she has the experience and contacts necessary to achieve her goals. Now that her son with disabilities has passed away and her other children are grown, she is dedicating all of her time and energy to promote her proposals.