Jan 21, 2015
Some years ago, in the Mexican State of Baja California something very unusual was attracting local and national attention: the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which had just been ratified by Mexico, was being spread, and promoted in the local context. The activist responsible for this endeavor was very unique as well; she was a young public official acting like a fervent activist. She was convinced the Convention had to be known by as many people with disabilities as possible and the sooner the better. This very visionary woman broke with the unwritten protocol that prohibits bureaucrats from being involved in the promotion of human rights. She has always believed if you have aware public officials, they will eventually end up doing what they are supposed to do. If people with disabilities and their families are aware; they will act as self defenders and promoters. The name of this intrepid woman is Melba Adriana Olvera Rodriguez, a Tijuana native, who thinks love and the search for justice are her mission in life: “You may think I’m tacky, that’s ok; love is what moves me. I don´t have another reason.”
It was Christmas season when a 16 year old Melba discovered her mission in life. She had always wanted to work for those less fortunate than herself. She was in charge of organizing a huge Christmas celebration for children with disabilities. She remembers the bright and hopeful smile of a girl using a walker who hurried up to meet with Santa Claus: “In that precise moment, I knew I wanted to help others reach their own happiness. You don´t reach your own until you have contributed to others.”
Deciding on her mission was not entirely related to her own experience as a person with disabilities. She did not see herself as “disabled” but as independent, confident and capable. Her family made the difference. “If children with disabilities have support, they will achieve whatever they want.” Melba points out life is still difficult, “You have to try as many times as needed until you finally prove that you can do it”.
Although Melba graduated from university with the highest honors and had worked for people with disabilities, she faced discrimination and had to struggle to find a job. In Mexico only 4% of people with disability have a university education, 32.9% of them are illiterate. Also, just 30% of them have a full time job. Discrimination and lack of accessibility are the two reasons behind these numbers. Finally Melba was hired in the Integral Family Development System, Mexican social services. She worked there for ten years for the inclusion of people with disabilities. Very unique rehabilitation parks were only one huge contribution during her administration in Baja California.
Her atypical work brought the attention of the Human Rights National Commission, the highest national body responsible for human rights protection and for monitoring the implementation of the UN Convention. Even though she was not a lawyer, but an expert in communication; Melba was invited to work there because her efforts resembled more a human rights activist than a typical bureaucrat. She refused many times; she had just married and her family was living in Tijuana. She finally accepted and has become one of the strongest disability advocates in Mexico. She saw this opportunity as a sign: “when there is an opportunity knocking on your door so many times, it has to mean something, you’d better take it”. After only two years, she was appointed as the Head of the Disabilities Direction which is in charge of safeguarding rights for people with disabilities in the whole country.
People who have known Melba since she was 12 say she has always been the same bossy but caring girl fighting to empower others. She has won social and governmental recognition of people with disabilities. She takes very seriously the U.N. Convention slogan “nothing about us without us”. She believes if we are aware of our rights, we can transmit the right message and provoke a chain of significant changes and realities. Melba asserts promoting the complaints against human rights violations is indispensible; supervising the observation of the U.N. Convention is mandatory; and education about human rights is fundamental. Therefore, education has to be the highest priority for people with disabilities and their governments.
Melba stresses, “As women and people with disabilities we must work to dignify ourselves and exercise our right to be autonomous and independent. We must not allow ourselves to be seen and treated as third class citizens. “Under this approach, we must view disability as a social concern rather than an individual affliction. It is a social duty to educate ourselves and raise awareness that disability is everybody’s concern.” She also thinks people with disabilities have to assume their responsibility in the country’s development: “We have an obligation, not an option”. Melba is also recognized in the field for having a conciliatory perspective. This year she was selected as one of the 30 women international leaders taking part in the Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability 2013 sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development and Mobility International.
Even if Melba has based her journey of advocacy on the search for her own happiness she does not deny that sometimes she feels very tired and questions why she must work so hard. When she is invited to be a speaker her own physical disability still makes some people wonder if she will be able to reach the microphone or articulate knowledge of her rights. Melba in action is a true inspiration, leading by example. Some people define Melba as a living proof of hope. This beautiful young woman not only fights for people’s rights, just seeing and listening to her convinces you anybody can accomplish whatever they want to achieve. In a country like Mexico, with family support and education disabilities are not limitations. This is how happiness can actually move mountains. Melba believes in love. You may think love is tacky but effective indeed.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.