The 2022 International Women’s Day was celebrated under the theme #BreakTheBias to highlight the need to eliminate any bias limiting women from operating fully and meaningfully in society. However, the theme should not be limited to the IWD.
More than ever, women have continued to play vital roles in advancing their rights and demanding a gender-equal world. Significantly, women with disabilities are deploying various approaches to address the double challenges and stigmatisation. Women with disabilities are supposed to be in a position that would avail them of opportunities to change the narrative and promote gender and disability rights in all ramifications.
Advancing this goal, the media has been identified as a tool for promoting equality and ending stigmatisation. However, the 6th Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) revealed that women, especially those minority and historically marginalised groups, are underrepresented in the media across all the identity groups.
The above data shows that women are increasingly being marginalised based on their subordinate identities of gender, race, ability, and legal status in their respective contexts. Where they are visible, they make the news in particular stories. The data also indicates that women with disabilities are significantly under-represented.
It is worth acknowledging that there has been a slight increase in the emergence of women in leadership positions across diverse sectors. However, the figure is still low with the gross exclusion of women from minority and marginalised groups. Data shows that women in senior management roles globally grew to 31%, the highest recorded number. Elsewhere, 90% of companies globally have at least one woman in a senior management role as of 2021.
Quality and competent women who can occupy management and leadership positions, either at the global, regional, or local levels, are not scarce; women in different cadres have been contributing meaningfully to the development of the society in their various capacities and with their expertise.
‘Breaking the Bias’ in and Out of Office
Despite the low number of women in high positions, they have stood out in different elements of their lives and careers and, most importantly, empower other women. For instance, Aishatu Ahmed, a woman with disability from Bauchi State, Nigeria, works as a case finder for trachoma. The condition is the leading global cause of blindness by infection. When she finds cases of advanced trachoma, Ahmed usually recommends surgery to mitigate blindness.
This role is important because the traditional or religious customs prevent male case finders from entering households unless there is a man. This tradition puts female victims at risk of missing out on necessary surgery. With a disease that disproportionately affects women, having other women on the frontline ensures that timely care is given.
Elsewhere, Asma Rashida has been committed to improving access to eye health services for marginalised women and girls in Bangladesh. She leads the community of young women with disabilities who work in various communities to ensure information about eye care is provided to all. Rashida believes every day is women’s day for everyone who cherishes women’s dignity.
In Sierra Leone, Dr Jalikatu Mustapha is the only female ophthalmologist and one of just six practitioners in the country, when she started. Over the years, she has become a strong voice in advocating for the provision of healthcare in a country that has been affected by multiple pandemics and conflicts.
Dr. Mustapha has been committed to reducing the ever-increasing population of people with avoidable vision impairment in Sierra Leone by involving research that would provide solutions to blindness. She has worked with local and international partners to make significant changes to eye care delivery.
Some of the initiatives include improving eye health information in the country, completing a nationwide assessment of eye health services, and conducting the first cataract audit research. She has also been instrumental in increasing rates of cataract surgeries in her department and re-implementing a nationwide cataract surgical outreach campaign to hard-to-reach populations.
Gertrude Oforiwa Fefoame, the Global Advocacy Manager for Social Inclusion at Sightsavers (an international non-governmental organisation that works to prevent avoidable blindness and promote equality for people with disabilities), is the second woman to be elected to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) Committee in 2018.
Fefoame has over 40 years of experience addressing stigma and denial of rights for people with disabilities, including women and girls. She has continued to speak passionately about the discrimination she’s experienced as a young woman due to loss of sight.
She also received the 2021 World Blind Union’s Women’s Empowerment Award for a substantial and outstanding contribution to empowering other women.
Pascaline Makati is the founder of Deaf Rights Cameroon; she is Deaf and takes every opportunity to speak against every form of discrimination against Deaf women and girls.
She set up ‘Miss Deaf Cameroon’, a beauty competition, to highlight the beauty and rights of girls with hearing impairments and provide grants for training, education, and employment of Deaf women who are often discriminated against in accessing employment opportunities.
Being a political actor herself, Makati is a campaigner for the participation of disabled women in politics; she mobilises Deaf women in Cameroon to participate in politics, to make their voice count like everyone else’s.
Pelagie Boko-Collins leads work in Benin and Togo to treat, prevent, and eliminate NTDs, conditions that typically affect women more. Bono-Collins was the only female NTDs entomologist in Benin when she started in the sector and is a member of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World.
Specifically, she wanted to address the issue of lymphatic filariasis, a disease transmitted by mosquitoes that can cause severe disability and debilitating swelling. At that time, nearly 4 million people were at risk of contracting lymphatic filariasis in Benin — with many unaware of the disease and how to prevent it.
#EqualUN: Increased Demand for WWDs in UN Committees
Despite existing since 2009, the UN Committee for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities reached gender parity for the first time after the election in 2020.
Some women with disabilities who have formed part of the committee include; Gertrude Oforiwa Fefoame, Rosemary Kayess of Australia, Mara Cristina Gabrilli of Brazil, Miyeon Kim of South Korea, Amalia Gamio Ríos of Mexico, and Risnawati Utami of Indonesia.
In the more comprehensive UN system, Ana Peláez Narváez, from Spain, was the first woman with a disability to be elected to the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) in 2018; Montserrat Vilarrasa, who has Down Syndrome, has served as Secretary of the Assembly of Human Rights; and Catalina Devandas Aguilar, former Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities (2014 – 2020).
The #EqualUN campaign launched by Sightsavers seeks to ensure that the voices of women with disabilities are heard, especially when making decisions that will affect their lives.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with BONews Service, Gertrude Oforiwa Fefoame of Sightsavers shared that “women, and particularly women with disabilities, remain unheard in far too many decision-making processes”, adding that it is essential that they are elected into the UN committees, and not just committee on disabilities alone.
According to Fefoame, “for the past four years, our campaign has also joined other organisations in calling for gender parity on the committees of all ten UN human rights treaty bodies. Women and girls with disabilities make up approximately one out of every five women across the world, so, it only makes sense that their voices are represented in all areas of decision and policymaking.”
She said that due to sustained and collaborative effort and support from campaigners, the UNCRPD committee has gone from having only one woman out of 18 members (in 2016) to six women (in 2018).
“With the #EqualUN campaign, we hope to keep ensuring UN member states (who vote for the committee members) recognise the importance of fair representation, and cast their votes with this in mind. After all, how can the UN tackle global inequality and achieve a more inclusive society if it isn’t inclusive itself? We also want to keep highlighting the lived experience of women with disabilities and showing why they need to be represented at all levels of power,” she said.
The call for WWDs to Continually #BreakTheBias
Although efforts have been made in recent years, discrimination against women and girls is still rampant. The case is worsened for women living with disabilities as they are discriminated against twice. This group has also been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic that has subjected disabled women to violence.
Despite this, Fefoame believes there is a need to shine a light on the challenges individuals living with disabilities encounter in society, not excluding the importance of supporting them to get their voices included and heard to ensure no one is left behind. She called on women with disabilities not to be deterred and continually break every form of barrier that they might be encountering.
“My loudest applause goes to women, particularly women and girls with disabilities around the world who despite the challenges, discrimination, and stigma faced are pushing back and breaking the glass ceiling in various sectors. Every woman deserves to have her voice heard. Thank you for inspiring me and others to work hard to #BreakTheBias.”
PS: the stories of Women captured in the story were collected from Sightsavers which were documented as part of its #EqualUN campaign.