Kenya needs more women with disabilities in leadership ranks

The late Senator Godliver Omondi. [Chrispen Sechere, Standard]

March is a special month for women. Marked as Women’s History month in some spaces, it is also the month we mark International Women’s Day.

This year also marks the 68th UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the global main policy-making body dedicated to gender equality and the advancement of women.

Women are not homogenous, and their life experiences differ greatly due to many aspects including their ages, their geographical contexts, their education levels, their economic status, their gender identity, their abilities, among others. When these multilayered aspects intersect, vulnerabilities and inequalities set in and disproportionately push more women to the margins.

For many years, women with disabilities have been speaking from the margins, underrepresented in many aspects of life, their experiences made invisible. The UN Women statistics show that women with disabilities are severely underrepresented in decision-making.

For example, they note that while both women and men with disabilities are underrepresented, evidence from 19 countries in 2017 showed that only 2.3 per cent of women with disabilities, compared to 2.8 per cent of men with disabilities, held positions of legislators, senior officials, or managers. In Kenya’s last elections, not even one woman with a disability was elected as governor or Member of Parliament.

Late last year when former nominated Senator Godliver Omondi from Kakamega County passed away, our community of women with disabilities was aware that Omondi had left behind a huge gap that would take time to fill in as far as leadership for women with disabilities in national spaces was concerned.

We know that many barriers exist for women with disabilities to access leadership and decision-making spaces. When they miss in these spaces, the specific needs of women and girls with disabilities often remain unattended in many areas, including education, healthcare, employment and how they access justice in the face of disproportionate violence against them, among others.

Josephta Mukobe served as a Principal Secretary in the State Department for Culture and Heritage, Ministry of Sports and Heritage in the last government. Josephta then, was the only woman with a disability who served in what we could call ‘a big office’ in the leadership of our country.

We currently do not have a woman with a disability as in the Cabinet or as a principal secretary.  Whereas we acknowledge that our laws provide for inclusion, the stark reality is that women with disabilities continue being ignored and remain excluded.

Janet Teiyaa, a woman with a disability who won a parliamentary seat in Kajiado in 2018, spoke about the propaganda that was initiated by her opponents about her physical disability. She not only had to fight against barriers as a woman but also as a disabled woman from a pastoralist community.

Her story is familiar to hundreds of women with disabilities who aspire for leadership opportunities but face far too many barriers, among them stigma and discrimination that is directed at persons with disabilities generally.

Godliver, Josephta and Janet represent many women with disabilities with huge leadership potentials which are yet to be tapped. Furthermore, leadership goes beyond political to civic, community, learning institutions and all aspects of life. In a world that is faced with pandemics and planetary crises that threaten human existence and push more people to poverty, women with disabilities must lead to bring their issues to the centre.

This year’s International Women’s Day’s clarion call is on investment in women to accelerate progress. It is a theme based on the 68th CSW priority theme on accelerating the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls by addressing poverty and strengthening institutions and financing with a gender perspective.

Indeed, there must be intentional and targeted funding for leadership programmes that are inclusive of women with disabilities. Such financing must recognise years of marginalisation and barriers these women have faced and the understanding that it will take time and effort as well as community awareness and political goodwill to have women with disabilities in leadership spaces.

We acknowledge and celebrate all actors, including women with disabilities themselves, who are pushing at all levels to make visible the experiences of women with disabilities. We acknowledge internal and external funders who are investing in the leadership of women with disabilities.

Because of such efforts we have women with disabilities meaningfully being included in different spaces across the counties including in county committees such as bursary committees, climate change committees and security committees, among others.

We hope that the momentum of March, the IWD and the CSW will continue to create the urgency and agency to build spaces for women with disabilities to access leadership and exercise decision-making.

-Ms Omino is a Global Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity; [email protected]. Ms Ombati is a disability rights advocate. [email protected]