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The Place of Women with Disabilities in Nigeria

Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary defines disability as a physical or mental condition that means a person cannot use a part of his / her body completely or easily or that she / he cannot learn easily. Most times some people who fall within the context of this definition of disability and their advocates see the term ‘disability’ as inappropriate hence they see the word as derogatory. They prefer persons living with disabilities to be identified as ‘physically challenged persons’. In one of our recent programmes, a mother of a young woman who has Down syndrome vehemently opposed the use of the term ‘physically challenged’ in her daughter’s case. However, within this context, the intention of those who prefer the term ‘physically challenged’ is to try to be non-discriminatory in addressing persons living with disabilities in the assumption that every human being under this earth is living with one challenge or the other. In practice, the idea of trying to be non-discriminatory defers from the way the same society relates with persons living with disabilities in Nigeria

My approach to the situation is not from the definitional point of view but the real challenges, which on a daily basis, confront a woman living with blindness or impaired vision, a woman who has difficulty in hearing or talking, a woman who cannot walk or stand on her legs and is therefore confined to a wheelchair all her life, a woman permanently living with cerebral palsy, a woman who has Down syndrome or intellectual disability, or neurological problems, or a woman who lives with one permanent physical and or psychosocial disorder or the other.

However, the social order in Nigeria is that of a patriarchal structure where women are generally perceived as second-class human beings. In such structure, there are already existing stereotypes or if you like mindsets, which forms relations, perceptions of ability, performance or use of the brain, based on one’s sex. In the said context, a woman is therefore accorded the second-class status as compared to a man within the Nigerian society. A woman is looked down upon and mostly addressed with derogatory languages. The perceptions manifest in the forms of marginalizations and discriminations on the streets, on the buses, in the churches and mosques, in schools, in the offices and even in the homes among parents and the way they relate with the male and female children.

In Nigeria there are social stigmas associated with disability. Generally speaking, persons with disabilities are seen as ‘good for nothing’ and viewed as objects of charity. The situation is worst in the cases of women with disabilities. Women with disabilities face double marginalization. They are discriminated and marginalized on the basis of their sex, that is being a woman and at the same time they are marginalized on the basis of their disabilities.

Many people including women with disabilities are hidden away by their families or placed in institutions due to social stigmatizations. In such situations, there would likely be environmental and discriminatory barriers for people with disabilities that limit their ability to participate in certain activities. For example, due to limited accessible transportation or poor mobility devices, people with disabilities inclusive of women are marginalized and have less access to equal participation. Disability is also not always apparent; a person may have a disability that may not be visible. Many people who may have a disability are often hesitant to self identify as disabled because of the fear that identifying themselves may lead to increased discrimination.

Perceptions of disability and societal isolation of women living with disabilities in Nigeria often put them at greater risk, both within and outside the home. They are at greater risk of sickness, injury, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation. Some disabilities, such as obstetric fistula, which are rampant among women from the Northern Nigeria are particularly stigmatizing. With all these, women with disabilities face additional barriers to achieving gender equality in Nigeria. These barriers subject disabled women to living with severe psychological problems and life of low self-esteem.

In the Nigerian context where CORRUPTION, which is described in Merriam Webster dictionary as ‘an inducement to do wrong by improper or unlawful means’ exist on high scales, local and national coffers are leaked. Corruption is perpetrated through transnational deals made outside of regulatory mechanisms; and through bribes exchanging hands in interpersonal transactions. The effects of corruption compounds already existing discriminations experienced by marginalized groups including women with disabilities. In Nigeria where the economy is dependent on oil and gas reserves, the proceeds often seep into pockets of public officials and intermediary deal brokers. Several hicks in the price of fuel, which is always artificially set, inflate cost of fuel-dependent goods such as food, toiletries and other essential needs. We all know that corruption promotes underdevelopment and continued absence or denial of access to basic facilities such as medical treatment, basic education, and mechanisms for provision of and protection for rights of women living with disabilities. Disabled women do not have access to control of resources. All these effects bear down on the lives of women with disabilities. Of course continued denial of medical, psychological and functional treatments, which are basic needs to women with disabilities expose their health to more danger.

In the political arena, women with disabilities are underrepresented and most times never represented at all as voters and as candidates in the history of elections in Nigeria. This is saddening because in most of the public places and utilities including election materials and election environments, the interests and accessibilities by disabled women are not taken into consideration, For instance blind women cannot read and use Nigerian voter’s cards neither can a wheel chair user access pooling booths. Indirectly these groups of women with disabilities are officially prevented from casting ballots or standing as candidates. Disabled women face barriers in Nigerian politics and when corrupt leaders impose themselves in office through corrupt elections, they cannot be held accountable for their lack of delivering basic goods and services like food, water, electricity and medicine to the citizens especially the disabled group. With no access of channels of accountability along side lack of access to information, ignorance of fundamental human rights and growing burdens as care takers, women bear the brunt of negative effects of corrupt leaders and women with disabilities are worst hit by corrupt practices.

Largely due to women’s social roles as caretakers especially in the homes, disabled women are faced with the challenges of confronting basic issues in the nation where corruption is deep-rooted. For example disabled women who are basically poor cannot pay bribes before securing school enrolment for their children, they cannot pay bribes to obtain business license, nor can they pay for getting medicines or examination from health personnel and or to access other utilities. The effects of this malfunctioning in the Nigerian nation are deteriorating conditions for this vulnerable group. In essence disabled women in Nigeria lack social protection

The World Bank estimates that people with disabilities make up around 20% of the poorest of the poor, which translates to approximately 260 million people with disabilities living in absolute poverty. Against the backdrop of some militating factors such as lack of access to resources control; poor educational background or low literacy; etc, disabled women are the poorest of the poor group in Nigeria. The unprecedented level of poverty among this group and the associated hunger leads to Malnutrition, which in turn can result in a number of disabilities, such as stunting, blindness, and diabetes. Hunger is a driving force, which push disabled persons into street begging and since Nigerian society see disabled persons as objects of pity or charity, the society are comfortable and prefer giving disabled persons money on the streets to giving them paying jobs and shelter. Majority of women with disabilities see street begging as the only and sure source of income. By engaging in this activity, they are exposed to more danger; they stand a high risk of being hit by motorists.

They live in makeshift dwellings and these dwellings do not provide any protection from the weather or human induced danger. Disabled women are highly vulnerable to all forms of diseases and social vices hence stories abound of disabled (kyphosis) women who were victims of ritual killing. Most disabled women resort to taking hard drugs due to lack of proper guidance, counseling and mentoring. The non-existence of community access and services for persons with disabilities in Nigeria, plus high cost of education and educational materials in the main, prevent the women and girls from going to school. Except a few women who became disabled at the course of their work and are retained at the work places for fear of legal implications in laying them of, a lot of corporate companies in Nigeria marginalize against disabled women in terms of job appointments even when they have the academic qualifications for the jobs.

It is estimated that a population of about 10 million Nigerians are disabled persons and are among Nigeria’s poorest people. Among this group some 60 per cent of them are women. Some 30 per cent of street youths have some kind of disability, and a good percent of children with disabilities are girls and they do not attend school. Families prefer using them to make money by way of alms begging to sending them to school. Compared to the Nigerian population, which is estimated at 120 million, disabled persons are living in minority and yet governments see it as Herculean task meeting the basic needs of disabled persons. In the words of Paul Wolfowitz Former President of World Bank \"People with disabilities are also people with extraordinary talent. Yet they are too often forgotten. When people with disabilities are denied opportunities, they are more likely to fall into poverty -- and people living in conditions of poverty are more likely to develop disabilities. As long as societies exclude those with disabilities, they will not reach their full potential and the poor in particular will be denied opportunities that they deserve. …”

Women and girls with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to abuse and are more likely to be victims of violence, rape or sexual abuse. Sexual violence, like other types of violence and abuse, is about control, intimidation and fear and has nothing to do with traditional definitions of sexual attractiveness and or negotiations. Deaf women particularly experience specific types of violence and vulnerabilities because of their deafness. Women with disabilities are in fact less likely to disclose violence or abuse because:
1. The nature of their disability may interfere with their ability to communicate exactly what happened
2. They might be afraid of being labeled a troublemaker or a liar
3. They might be afraid of losing essential supplies such as food or being harboured or institutionalized
4. They might not recognize the abuse as violent and inappropriate
5. They are socially and physically isolated and as a result, are unaware of their basic rights, necessary services for them, of course they lack protection of the law.
In the events of violence and abuse, disabled women are less likely to obtain police intervention, legal protection because they cannot pay for the services of a lawyer or preventive care. In such situations, they are subjected to severe psychological disabilities in addition to the seen physical disabilities.

Women with disabilities in Nigeria are subjected to social, cultural and economic disadvantages, the disadvantages diminish their chances of overcoming their disabilities and make it all the more difficult for them to take part in community life. Women with disabilities in Nigeria find themselves in a context where services and buildings cannot be accessed by everyone; a place where they cannot participate fully; a place where there are no respects for her human dignity and rights; and a place where they cannot have friends outside the disability group.

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