Wednesday, January 19, 2011

No Easy Path for Disabled Women with Political Dreams

Joyce Labosa and Millie Odhiambo, MP's at the forefront fighting for disabled women's rights / Credit:Miriam Gathigah/IPS
Joyce Labosa and Millie Odhiambo, MP's at the forefront fighting for disabled women's rights 
Credit:Miriam Gathigah/IPS

"People living with disability face all sorts of discrimination. We are discriminated against at job interviews in schools. Everyday is a battle to remain positive in the face of a world that is too bent on dismissing those among us that do not meet the standard of what is normal", explains Mishi Juma, a disabled community leader from the Coast region.

 In the past, Juma never had a safe space to raise these issues. But all this has now changed. Juma and many other disabled women can now raise their concerns with the newly established Ministry of gender and social development. 

The establishment of this Ministry two years ago has been a milestone in Kenya and has had to prove that it is more than just another women’s organisation.

Critical processes which were meant to improve the plight of the minority and disadvantaged in the country have been initiated.

This is reflected by the formulation of various interventions to reach those who may not be in a position to access socio-economic opportunities, which are key to their development.

Some of these interventions have included the setting up of a Women and Youth Fund, as well as a persistent push for gender equality policies in all sectors of the economy.

Even so, it is the call for a census to establish the number of persons with disabilities, and the nature of disabilities, that has further proved that the Ministry does not only address women’s and children’s issues, as had been previously perceived.

This call was initiated by the former Minister, Esther Murugi, in an effort to mainstream the issue of disability in the country.

But some feel not enough has been done. It is even worse for those with political ambitions, "I have been dismissed even before being given an opportunity to speak my mind - firstly for just being a woman and then for being a woman who is not physically fit," explains Kanini Mugambi, an aspiring politician from Eastern Kenya.

The country is yet to see a disabled woman in Parliament. "Going by the kind of violence meted out to female politicians in the last general elections of 2007, many women with disabilities nurturing political ambitions might feel threatened because their mobility is limited and they may not be able to run in case there is a scuffle - as is usually the case," explains Mishi Juma.

This is despite the fact that, according to Murugi, Kenya is one of the few countries in Africa with a Disability Act already in place, which clearly enumerates the rights of the disabled, including the right to rehabilitation in order for them to achieve equalisation of opportunities".

She further explained that Kenya is being considered for an ambassadorial position by the African Decade for Persons with Disabilities Secretariat, based in South Africa, due to its efforts to promote issues affecting people living with disability.

Within this financial year, the government had committed itself to set up a multi million-dollar fund to address problems faced by people living with disability.

While Murugi said the establishment of the fund was a good beginning, she was also optimistic that the fund could be doubled in the next financial year to enable persons living with disabilities to access funding for entrepreneurship, as was the case with the Women and Youth Fund.

"Although this might be the case, most physical amenities in the country lack suitable infrastructure to assist people with disabilities," explains Juma.

This is in spite of the fact that the Disability Act, as well as the Constitution, demands that all persons living with disabilities are entitled to ‘reasonable access to all places, public transport and information.’

The call for a census to be undertaken among persons living with disabilities was therefore an expression of the government’s commitment to improving the plight of the physically challenged.

In fact, according to the Constitution that was only recently promulgated, the "State shall ensure the progressive implementation of the principle that at least five percent of the members of the public in elective and appointive bodies are persons with disabilities."

It is imperative to also note that the government, in conjunction with state corporations, is working on identifying targets to establish a disability committee that would be mandated with the task of developing a disability mainstreaming strategy.

The strategy will not only ensure that people with disabilities do not face discrimination in public places, but that they are also able to access services which are available to other Kenyans.

Although there are legal frameworks in place to protect and promote the rights of the disabled, including policy guidelines awaiting Cabinet’s approval, there is a need for the legal system to work in collaboration with society.

"This is because it is the same society that hides children born with disability from the world, denying them an opportunity to grow together with other children. And by the time they are exposed to society, the culture shock is too overwhelming for them," explains Hamisa Zaja, chairperson of disabled groups in the Coast region.

In light of the devolved system of government, Hamisa Zaja further urged disabled women not to shy away from politics and to present themselves to the electorate when the opportunity presented itself.

In the meantime, she called for leaders to sensitise the public on the need to create an enabling environment for people with disabilities to pursue the same opportunities as other Kenyans, particularly in the political arena. 

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Violence against women is a worldwide yet still hidden problem. Freedom from the threat of harassment, battering, and sexual assault is a concept that most of us have a hard time imagining because violence is such a deep part of our cultures and lives.