Can you tell me a little bit about what you do?
I focus on women and children with disabilities in Nigeria, on the protection of their rights. We don’t really have a legal framework in Nigeria that protects the rights of persons with disabilities so we are actually advocating and working hand in hand with other disabled persons organisations to advocate for the passage of the Disability Bill which will go a long way to alleviating the plight of persons with disabilities in Nigeria, especially women. I’m a woman with disabilities so I know where the pinch is.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the Disabilities Bill?
It’s actually a bill which, when passed into an act, is going to make sure that every aspect of living for persons with disabilities is being protected by the law in terms of accessibility. Right now you find that when a person on a wheelchair goes to a building and he cannot access it because they don’t have ramps; it’s all stairs and no lifts, so automatically the person is shut down from participating in life. With that bill you’ll be able to go the court and actually ask for your rights and be able to get legal protection.
How does what you do as a lawyer affect what you do as an activist?
With my experience as a lawyer, I’m able to advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities using the laws in existence. Even though there’s no disability act in place, there are other laws that you’re able to twist in the law courts. Like there are some sections in the Nigerian Constitution that if you’re able to marry them with other acts in play, depending on the act, then you might find justice. Like for example when it comes to elections, if you’re able to marry the constitution and then the electoral acts together, and you find that discrimination has taken place, you’ll be able to take it up in a law court and get justice. Another example is I was in a program last week and we were talking about the issue of discrimination in the workplace. Because you have the right to be employed and the government has employed you, but then you’re not given any files, or you’re not given the equipment as a blind person to carry out your work effectively, you’re being rendered redundant. You can find some laws that somehow you’ll be able to manipulate to your own advantage.
What would you say are some of the biggest challenges that you face in your activism?
The society. Attitudinal barriers. As a woman with disabilities in Nigeria you face triple jeopardy. Because number one, as a woman you’re already being seen as second to the man. And then as a person with disability the perception in society is that you’re cursed – there are a lot of myths associated with disability. Persons with disability are usually the poorest of the poor in the society because they are being shut down from participating in life and living. The attitude of the society and the citizens is really discriminatory towards persons with disabilities so you have to first start by reorienting them, making them see that persons with disabilities can do much more than what they’re being taken for.
I was discussing with a colleague of mine, she’s also a person with disabilities and she’s done her PhD, she’s a doctor, and she was saying she finds it insulting when she’s done something and someone comes and tells her: “wow for you to be a doctor that means what am I doing?” They’re trying to tell her that it’s a very big accomplishment for her as a person with a disability, but it is actually a normal thing. If a normal person studies and becomes a doctor, it’s seen as a normal thing, but if a person with disability does something as minute as driving a car, you’re seen as hero. Even me as I’m talking, I drive; but when people see me they’re like “wow, so you drive?” because I have a disability. But it’s a simple thing. So the attitude of the society is what we actually have to deal with.
So when you’re trying to communicate this to people and change people’s minds and hearts, what is the most successful way you’ve found to get people to change?
I always use myself as an example. Because, number one, with human beings you can’t keep telling them what you want to happen if you don’t show them how it’s been done before. They always want to see an example, so usually what I do is bring out examples of persons with disabilities who have succeeded in life, who have been able to make it even amidst all the odds. If I’m advocating for accessibility in Nigeria, I try to use examples of how it’s been done in the US, how the disability act is successful in the US. I have a lot of colleagues with disabilities who go to the US and they don’t even feel like coming back to Nigeria because everything there is working perfectly. You don’t need to be assisted; you can live an independent life. But in Nigeria, trust me, as a blind person you cannot even dare walk out without an aide, you’ll just fall into the gutter or bump yourself against something. So I just use advocacy by example as a way of reaching out to people.
So as a woman with disabilities, how would you say your advocacy for gender equity is different from the ways other people might be doing it?
I’d say it’s different because I actually advocate mostly for women with disabilities and for you to get across to people, you’re not just trying to get them to accept women, to make them to see men and women on an equitable basis, but also make them see the ability in the woman’s disability. That means I have to take a two-way approach: first of all, disabusing their minds from seeing the woman as a no-gooder, then seeing her not just as a woman, but as a person. For me I would say that is more taxing, but I believe in partnership. That is why I try to partner with other organisations that believe in the same thing I do.
Then how is being a woman with disabilities different from being a man with disabilities in Nigerian society? What are the things that women face that men may not necessarily face?
In Africa, in Nigeria in particular, I always say it’s a man’s world. So somehow you see men who have been able to conquer it, they’ve been able to get married, they’ve been able to break into political sphere – we had a man with disabilities, honourable Shuaibu from Jigawa State, who was able to go into the House of Assembly and we have a senior special assistant to the president on disability matters. But already it’s very difficult to break into the political sphere as a “normal” woman come to talk of a woman with disabilities.
And when it gets to the issue of abuse, you find a lot of women with disabilities face that. That’s why most times you find women with disabilities with low self esteem. I know of an organisation, Disability Rights Advocacy Centre (DRAC), that is actually working on a “respect not abuse” campaign, which is the reduction of violence against women and girls with disabilities. This is an issue that has not really been spoken about before, but it is a really big problem we are facing in the society. For example, if a deaf woman goes into the police station to report that she’s raped, we don’t even have any mechanisms in place for her. The police officers don’t know how to speak sign language and what if the woman does not know how to write – there’s no one to interpret for her. And because of the stigma associated with abuse as well as being a person with disabilities, a lot of them do not speak up. There was a time I interviewed some women and if you hear their stories, wow. A lot of them, till today, have been living in silence because they cannot talk to anybody. Someone called me a month back from Bauchi State and he was telling me about a physically challenged woman who was raped by someone in her village. When the guy was arrested, what he said was that he was doing her a favour.
The problem we’re having as women with disabilities is we’re not even accepted in the women’s circle. In my years of advocacy I found out that in a lot of women’s organisations, you hardly see them give space to women with disabilities. It’s actually about the attitudinal barrier in society I was telling you about. We have the mindset that persons with disabilities are no good. There are a lot of myths associated with us. So even getting to the women’s circle, we’re being seen as lesser women. So even when activities and policies are designed for women, women with disabilities come in as afterthoughts. These are the things we have to deal with. We’re trying to mainstream women with disabilities even into the women’s circle first, before even getting it out to a wider circle.
When it comes to discrimination, men with disabilities have found a way to overcome it, but women with disabilities, you hardly find that. Let’s say a man wants to take you to his parents to say he’s found a wife, that’s when you’ll find out what discrimination is. You’re not even seen as being fit enough to bear a child, you know. So we have to work not just double hard, but triple hard to measure up with the men with disabilities because somehow they’ve been able to break through.
I know what I’ve gone through, what I’ve had to overcome, to get to where I am today. When you go out to do something and people say things to you like “what are you doing here where ‘normal’ people are?” If you’re not strong, you might give up on life and withdraw into your shell. These are things we face every day as woman with disabilities in Nigeria.
So how do you think something like the Gender Hub would be useful for you?
I think it could be an avenue where we could have our voices heard as women with disabilities. We have a lot of stories to tell. We have a lot of experiences to share. The truth is I’ve met a lot of amazing women with disabilities who have it all going well. They’ve very talented, they’re very educated, they have things to add to the society, but having the avenue to get themselves heard – that is the problem. So it would be a very good platform for women with disabilities to have a voice.
Are you seeing any changes or movement in society in terms of how women with disabilities are viewed?
Well, recently there’s been a lot of activism and advocacy by disabled persons’ organisations and they tend to come out and create awareness on issues of disability. You know, before the issues of women with disabilities were not really being heard out there. But we have organisations now that are really out.
I don’t want to blame the society totally because there are some people that honestly do not even understand what it means to be a person with disabilities. But with this advocacy, awareness and sensitisation in society, they’re coming to terms with the idea that there is ability in disability. They understand the potentials within women – not just women with disabilities – in general. So I can say that to a certain extent, awareness is being created, but we still have a long way to go. Even now there are people who would not want to associate themselves with persons with disabilities.
So what would you say a Nigeria that respected gender equity would look like?
It would be a Nigeria whereby if I go today and I want to get married, the family would not say, “Could this person be able to give birth?” And when I have my children they won’t say, “Are they not going to be persons with disabilities too?” A society whereby when I walk into an institution or a space I’m being seen not as a woman with disabilities but for my intellect and what I can offer. That’s the type of equitable Nigeria that I want to see. A Nigeria where I’m seen as me, as Apolmida, not as that woman with disabilities. My disability should come second to who I am as person.