Tale of women with disability who defy odds in politics

Ashura Michael gives her speech in sign language at the Bomas of Kenya during the launch of the Building Bridges to A United Kenya Taskforce report on October 26, 2020. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

If it is hard for a woman to campaign and win an elective position, it is twice as hard for a woman with a disability.

Ashura Michael, a public policy, gender and human rights advocate, says her experience on the campaign trail in last year's elections was difficult.

Ashura's plan to represent Nairobi in the Senate flopped after Azimio handed ODM secretary general Edwin Sifuna a direct ticket.

Out of 480 elective political positions in the 2022 National elections, only 94 women made the cut in political leadership which is equivalent to 19 per cent of the total representation.  

Ashura, who is deaf, believes that women with disabilities have a bright future in political leadership, and this can only happen when they are given the opportunity to lead.

"Women with disabilities should come out and prove their worth. I believe that I can make a change by being at the forefront, especially when we want to initiate Bills that touch on our challenges. As they say, it’s only the shoe wearer who knows where it pinches most," says Ashura.

The lawyer says she had challenges with communication during campaigns. 

"I pray that Kenyans can take a moment and learn Kenyan sign language, trust me this is the coolest language, cooler than those foreign ones," she says.

The ever-jovial human rights advocate was in the race until the last minute when she stepped down after an opponent was handed a direct ticket. Her supporters took the news well, thinking she would at least be nominated but this never came to be.

She dismisses the notion that women with disability are angry and bitter.

"We face discrimination every day and it is because of the negative attitude some people have towards those with disabilities," she says.

Ashura encourages women and girls with disability that success is built through confidence, hard work and determination.

She urges the government and private sector to give women with disabilities opportunities in leadership.

"There is no way we can achieve our goals if women with disabilities are left behind," says the lawyer.

Lucy Mulombi, a teacher in Kakamega, says that attitudinal bias is one of the barriers experienced by women with disability in political leadership.

Teacher Lucy Mulombi. [Courtesy]

According to Mulombi, society does not believe that a woman with a disability can represent them well.

"I am identified as a woman with a physical disability. I am a grassroots advocate for women and girls with disabilities from Kakamega County. I am in leadership even if not an elected one," she says.

"I believe leadership is not about the titles, but it's about the passion to serve. I know the Constitution has given us the right to vote and be voted. It is just a matter of when," says Mulombi.

She adds that election rules tend to be discriminatory.

"We have a clause that says a person cannot contest if he/she is of unsound mind. Such a clause takes away the right of persons with disabilities, especially those with psychosocial disabilities," Mulombi says.

She adds that polling stations are not friendly to persons with disabilities in terms of accessibility

Violence is another barrier that has been experienced during campaigns

"When women experience violence, women with disabilities experience double that violence and this affects their participation in politics," she says.

In 2022, Mulombi was prepared to vie for an elective position, but she was held back by myths and misconceptions.

"I am a mother and I lost my husband many years back. Men from my community termed me unfit to vie until I remarry,’’ Mulombi says.

On campus, Mulombi served in the Student Senate, a position that saw her champion the rights of all students and not just persons with disabilities.

"Later on, I vied to represent teachers as a non-woman representative, a position that I won overwhelmingly. Not because of my disability but because I proved to the teachers that, I was worth the position. As we speak today, I am an official in the Kenya National Union of Teachers," says Mulombi.

Mulombi says that there is a notion that persons with disabilities have their slots for nomination and they should not contest.

Nominated Senator Crystal Asige says that women with disability tend to be perceived as inferior.

Nominated Senator Crystal Asige. [Courtesy]

"It is difficult to find women with disability interact with their constituents, attend political rallies or even stakeholder engagement the way women without disability would do," she says,

Unlike others who will be invited to give their views on certain topics in media stations, this hardly happens with women with disability and this affects their visibility.

The senator has faced challenges such as a lack of funds to push for capacity building among women with disabilities.

Her other challenges are with the documentation and the manner parliamentary business is conducted.

"I have issues with documentation which needs to be given to me in a friendly format." 

"For instance, there are usually 10-15 minutes for each senator to table their contributions in Parliament. While other senators get a visual prompt, my mic is just turned off and I end up losing my trail thought," says Asige.

She says the Senate should consider an audio prompt, which can make her aware of how much time she is left with to wind up.

She says MPs with experience should help women with disability push their agenda.

"I have quite a lot of Bills that I am sponsoring, four have turned up on the order paper and are being processed," she says.

Faith Odidi, a programmes coordinator at West Minister Foundation for Democracy (WFD), says women with disability face attitudinal barriers since political parties really don't understand disability.

Odidi believes that one way of addressing this is ensuring that political parties include women with disability in their policies, manifestos, constitution and nomination rules.

"When political parties have structures in place, then women with disabilities will easily be included," she says.

Jane Kihungi, the director of Women Challenged to Challenge (WCC), believes that the majority of women with disability are not well educated and lack financial muscles due to unemployment which hinder their engagement in politics.

"Some of the things that we have done at WCC is to educate women with disabilities, build their capacity and their self-esteem. Besides that, we have trained media personnel to be able to tell the stories of women with disabilities for visibility," says Kihungi

According to human rights advocate Davies Okombo, Kenya is a signatory to different international conventions which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex or any other status.

This commitment is affirmed by the Constitution which provides that any treaty or convention which is ratified shall form part of the Constitution.

Okombo says violence works against the promotion of participation of women with disability in enjoying political rights.

He wants policymakers to develop intersectional approaches when seeking to support women with disability to enjoy political rights.

-This story is part of the African Women in Media (AWiM)/ Luminate Young Women in Politics media project.