Bola, 22 (real name omitted) has never left her small room in a small community in Ekiti state. She is walled in by several buildings built by her father for his two wives and five children to ensure that she cannot leave the premises. Her only crime is that she is disabled, and if the public becomes aware of this, it would ruin her father’s reputation. When asked, even the children answer that they are only four of them. To them, her father and the public, Bola does not exist.
Aisha (real name omitted), a crippled girl in Kano state was raped by seven men. The truck pushers each took long turns with her in an ordeal that lasted hours. After she reported the case, the police and a medical agency attempting to help her asked her to finger the culprits, she refused. When asked why, she replied that she had been moving around with her disability for years and men pretended that they did not see her sexually, so to be desired all at once, and by seven people, made her feel human.
These stories are true life stories, the type of stories Nigerians like to ignore for the big political juice. But the Disability Rights Advocacy Center has begun to look very deeply into these stories, and more Executive Director of the Centre Irene Patrick Ojiugo says that most people view the problems that disabled people face from a charitable perspective, ignoring the reality that they may be having their rights grossly violated.
What are the challenges?
Irene who is equally physically challenged has begun some work with the USAID to advocate for the social inclusion of disabled persons into the frameworks of the Nigerian health sector. The challenges which she says seem ordinary in the eyes of other people are not so simple to the disabled.
“You have a disabled woman who is beaten up and occasionally raped by her husband and she reports the matter to the policeman who tells her ‘…well just manage, you know you are a disabled woman, if he kicks you out now where will you go?’”
It is equally important Irene adds, that the perceptions Nigerians have of disabled persons be changed as well:
“I go to renew my passport, and this guy stares at me on my wheel chair with pity and screams out ‘You are healed in Jesus name’, I am looking back at him with surprise as I reply ‘I am here to renew my passport’. The good part of the whole ordeal is that they let me get in front of the line, but that’s how easily disabled persons become posters for religious deliverance.”
What is being done about disabled people in Nigeria?
Disability Rights Advocacy Centre is a non-governmental non-profit organization that is working to promote the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs), facilitate their social inclusion in Nigeria’s development agenda’s and increase awareness about persons with disabilities in Nigeria. With support from the United States Agency for International Development Strengthening the organization is working to address key challenges affecting women with disabilities in Nigeria.
The centre has advocated for the passing to law of a bill for the protection of persons with disabilities. With the support of several National Assembly members and other disability groups the bill was developed and submitted to the House three times. It is still yet to be passed. It was rejected by the Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan administration, the reason is unclear, the statistics however is shockingly clear. Irene says that it is a bill for an Act ‘to ensure full Integration of persons with disabilities Into the society and to establish a national commission for persons with disabilities as well as vest it with the responsibilities for their education, healthcare and protection of their social, economic and civil rights’.
The World Health Organization says there are about 26.5 million Nigerians living with various types of disabilities, many of which are preventable, and most often attributable to poverty. In a recent study by the WHO the figures show that 20% of disabilities worldwide are caused by malnutrition. Accidents, trauma and war account for 16% of disabilities. Another 11% as a result of infectious disease and 13% of disabilities are a result of other causes, including ageing.
Disability Rights Advocacy Centre has prepared several working frameworks on inclusiveness, participation and rights for disabled persons as part of the Bill it plans to present again. Irene says there needs to be a paradigm shift from people seeing disabled persons the way they do in Nigeria currently:
“We here in Nigeria, tend to see disabled persons as the problem, and this is not a good way to go if one expects to make change. The real problem is that our society is not built to be friendly with disabled people, as if ignoring their existence. “
Institutional and Societal Challenges
Lois Auta, Vice President for the Nigerian chapter of the Mandela Washington Fellow for young leaders in Africa spoke about the discrimination during a meeting with the DRAC.
“My partner took me for introduction to his family, and what his mother could say was ‘Are you out of your mind bringing a physically challenged person to me as a daughter in-law?’ the statement was not right, and the statement was not even legal and this are the things we have to consider, which is why we have to work to get bills such as these signed into law.
Helen Beyoku 28, discussed her experience during a workshop organized by the Disability Rights Advocacy Centre. She spoke of her terrible experience during pregnancy, when due to her inability to communicate with medical personnel and the absence of a person with sign language understanding in most hospitals, she was ignored till the baby’s head had begun to appear before being scheduled for treatment.
Beyond discrimination, persons with disabilities face environmental challenges; the Nigerian society often neglects their presence in its development frameworks making access to institutions, transportation and other social institutions a nightmare. A simple staircase can hinder a disabled person from getting medical attention in a time of need. There exists no legal frameworks specifically protecting the rights of persons with disabilities and only Lagos, Ekiti, Plateau and Bauchi have a disability law. The Kaduna State government has recently just appointed an adviser to this regard.
In 2014, Vice Chairman, Senate Committee on Niger Delta Affairs, Nurudeen Abatemi-Usman, promised that President Goodluck Jonathan would sign into law the Disability Bill passed by the current National Assembly. The bill was never signed
A call for Social Inclusiveness
Irene is working with several partners and other disability networks to ensure that these challenges are overcome for each group.
“People don’t know what it really is to be disabled. Transportation and buildings are inaccessible, hospitals have no sign language interpreters, and sometimes your dignity is sacrificed on the altar of access to basic rights.” -Irene
Chairman of the DRAC board Paul Nwabuikwu has taken up advocacy and the rights of women with disabilities because as he comments “Nigerians who through no fault of theirs are being neglected, even though the challenges they face are fundamental and serial”.
What are Nigerians Saying about this?
The world population is a little over 7 billion people, with almost 15% of the population is disabled, raising awareness about the need for participation of people with disabilities as well as the efforts to remove barriers and open doors towards a fully inclusive society, and a comprehensive development for people not only a goal but also the common responsibility of all humanity.
Three Presidents have let the bill slide, this is not an extremely peculiar case in terms of bill passages: the violence against persons bill was only passed this year as well. What is most disturbing is how several administrations treat the subject of disabled persons, as though it is a charitable endeavour, as though their lives don’t matter as much as their votes, and more disturbingly as though they are invisible.
Tahir Sherriff (@tahirsherriff) is a Nigeria-based researcher, writer and social commentator with a recent focus on policy, governance and participation, regional development and social change.