Don’t let women with disability shoulder burden alone


By Phitalis Were Masakhwe

States Parties recognise that women and girls with disabilities are subject to multiple discrimination, and in this regard shall take measures to ensure the full and equal enjoyment by them of all human rights and fundamental freedoms — Article 6 of the UN treaty on disability rights (2006)

It is international women’s day, yet another time to take stock of the milestones that communities and nations have achieved in the quest for women empowerment.

But women are not a homogeneous group. To be a woman in Africa presents mixed and varied challenges. Having a disability in the same environment is an entirely different story.

While we celebrate the strength and loving care of our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters and wives, it is imperative to reflect on the developments and challenges afflicting girls and women with disabilities. This will make the issue of women advancement broad based and holistic.

How can we talk of promoting gender equality when disabled women and girls constitute a disproportionate number among the two-thirds of the world’s illiterate?

According to Unesco, "in developing countries, children with disabilities, especially girls, are five times more likely to miss out on education compared to their non-disabled counterparts.

Many disabled women continue to miss out on education, training and employment on account of their disability. A range of obstacles — institutional, social, economic and political — continue to relegate disabled women to the sidelines".

We have for instance witnessed significant progress in responsible parenthood, maternal and reproductive health among women. But, how many women with disabilities have access to sexual and reproductive health, safe and friendly gynaecology and obstetric care, let alone safe motherhood?

First, society assumes these women have no sexual feelings, so nobody factors them in planning. Even in the family, girls with disabilities are rarely prepared for puberty and adolescence. The medical fraternity is ill equipped to deal with them. "Who made this one pregnant; you mean these ones also indulge in sexual matters?" This is a common question.

Inaccessible beds

The question notwithstanding, women with disabilities maybe prevented from enjoying these rights by mere account of inaccessibility — stairs, lack of sign language interpretation for the deaf, inaccessible information for the visually impaired, maternity bed being too high for the disabled and negative attitude or lack of awareness by the service providers.

All the talk about gender based violence needs to be reviewed. Take simple things like the way we construct and label toilets — male, female and ‘disabled’ toilets. Does this mean disabled women and men have no sexuality, that women and men with disabilities can use the same toilets?

Why not adapt all toilets so that disabled and none disabled can use them?

Many times, the disabled have found themselves in the so-called ‘disabled’ toilet. Would that not qualify as sexual and gender based violence? How will it sound if the same toilets were labelled male, female, black or white? Will people not perceive racial undertones or discrimination? The toilet story is just a tip of the iceberg with regard to the socioeconomic and political issues surrounding disabled women.

The media have highlighted success stories of disabled women who have succeeded against all odds. Bright Ambeyi Oywaya, a member of the board of directors with the Kenya Paraplegic Organisation is one such fine example.

"After my spinal cord injury through a road accident, I chose not to succumb but mobilise fellow women in similar circumstances and together we have formed a formidable advocacy for our rights, but more importantly started a counselling department at the Spinal Injury Hospital in Nairobi," says Oywaya.

Former MP and lawyer Josephine Sinyo, herself visually impaired, is another model that women with disabilities can look up to for inspiration.

Disabled men and women in the country are happy with the Bomas draft constitution, courtesy of the great work by one of their own, Salome Muigai, a gender and education specialist. Salome’s physical disability did not deter her from superbly serving as a commissioner with the then Constitutional Review Commission.

Countries like Kenya that have ratified the disability rights treaty must in partnership with relevant players take appropriate measures to ensure the full development, advancement and empowerment of women with disabilities. Programmes to support the development of their self-esteem are equally important.

Governments, UN agencies such as Unifem, development partners and media must do more to help tilt the equation for women with disabilities. Disabled women must likewise realise time for tokenism is over; they must stand up and fight for their rights.

The writer is a sociologist with a physical disability

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