CBM is currently attending the 13th AWID international forum in Brazil. We take this opportunity to interview two women with disabilities – Irene Ojiugo from Nigeria and Razaka Ralphine from Madagascar, both working in the disability and gender movement in their respective countries. Both women are wheelchair users. The Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID) is a global, feminist membership organisation that has been part of women’s rights movements working to achieve gender equality, sustainable development and women's human rights worldwide.
What makes you passionate about what you do?
Irene: I am very passionate about what I do because I have lived the experience. I live in a country (Nigeria) where persons with disabilities are not considered in designing environment, laws and policies. It is almost a nightmare, because of the attitudes, the barriers, and the lack of legal framework. I want to see change happen; I want to live in a country where I can fulfil my capabilities.
The mainstream women’s movement does not include women with disabilities, and it is more tokenism. In advocating for the women’s agenda there is no consideration of women with disabilities - this is why I am so passionate about my work. All the issues that women face – sexuality, sexual and reproductive health and rights, we women with disabilities also face the same issues. Hence, the women movement must recognize that we exist.
Razaka: My passion for my work comes from my disability itself, and the experience I have lived so far. I would go as far as to say that I am proud of my disability, as it has helped me achieve great heights.
What is your current role?
Irene: I am executive director of the Disability Rights Advocacy Centre (DRAC) - we ensure that rights of persons with disabilities are recognised and respected. We are advocating for legal rights for persons with disabilities and for their social inclusion. In DRAC, we do a lot of advocacy of inclusion, using the concept of inclusive and accessible design and promoting independent living. We conduct trainings on Disability Inclusive Development (DID) as well as on gender and disability. Everything we do is through a gender and disability lens, we want to be sure that women with disabilities are not left behind.
Razaka: Recently I have been appointed as the director of persons with disabilities and the elderly, these two categories are part of the Ministry of Population, social protection and gender promotion in Madagascar. This is the first time this post has been given to a person with a disability so it is an achievement for us. After all – nothing about us without us, right? My office assists DPOs and people with disabilities who lack funds. We support them financially and with logistical support. For example, we conduct workshops with deaf people, we support people with disabilities in their pursuit of employment opportunities.
Furthermore, I am also the president of an organisation – the Network of Women with Disabilities in Madagascar, where we mainly conduct trainings on the rights of women with disabilities in human rights. The general level of awareness about fundamental human rights especially with regard to persons with disabilities is still very low, so we try to educate and create awareness as much as possible.
What are the issues faced by women with disabilities in your country?
Irene: Women with disabilities still face many barriers - lack of access to sexual and reproductive health (including physical barriers, attitudes of health care providers etc). Women with disabilities also lack access to education and information, leading to self-esteem issues. Additionally, we are invisible when it comes to governance - women with disabilities tend to be relegated to the background all the time. We also face high levels of gender-based violence and still have no access to employment and livelihood opportunities.
Razaka: In Madagascar, women and girls with disabilities are victims of sexual abuse. When abuse against women with disabilities is reported, they do not get the same support as non-disabled women. When sending children to school, girls with disabilities are not a priority. Women with disabilities are not expected to be married and have children. There is a need for active leaders to increase the momentum and convince others about the women’s disability movement.
Do you work closely with the gender and disability movement in your country? What are the challenges and the opportunities you face?
Irene: It has been challenging, the only thing that works is demanding our rights to be included. Women with disabilities are still being ignored in the mainstream women’s movement. Nonetheless alliances are improving slowly. The women’s agenda now includes an item on women with disabilities. However, we are still lost in the crowd, we have a long way to go.
Razaka: The women’s movement in my country does not directly reject the disability movement. Although I feel like we need to shake them up, to remind them that we, the women with disabilities, we are also here. We need to actively remind them to give us a seat at the table. For a long time we were included in the general movement without distinction - but when we set up our own exclusive organization for women with disabilities we were able to voice our demands in a more cohesive manner.
What is your message to the women’s movement?
Irene: We are women too, we have the skills, potential and we want to become more visible. We want to be given a seat at the table where decisions are being made, and we need your help to organise ourselves better. I want to see women with disabilities in leadership positions.
Razaka: As a woman with a disability living in a developing country, I thinks there is still a lot to be done in terms of awareness and advocacy within the women’s movement itself. I feel like they are not truly aware of the issues faced by women with disabilities, so we need to shed more light on that and get the conversation started.