Women and girls with disabilities in Nigeria are the most vulnerable groups but the system doesn’t care
FOR LOIS Auta, 39, growing up with an unusual health condition and appearance was difficult.
As a child, she found herself shying away from playing with her peers because she was diagnosed with Poliomyelitis, also known as polio.
Polio is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus which attacks the nervous system and often results in permanent paralysis.
At the age of two, Auta, was already down with polio, which crippled her lower limb and this kept her away during play time.
She would often lock herself indoors after several attempts to join her peers at the neighbourhood playground failed.
That was her only way to avoid being mocked by others because of her condition.
The reality of her disability was biting at her self esteem but her parents made the journey easy. With unwavering love and assurance from her mother, Auta came to accept her condition and planted a mantra in her heart which she recited when life got tough.
“I see my disability as a blessing and not a curse. I see it as a bridge and not a barricade. I see my disability as an opportunity to change the world. I’m a woman with 99.9 percent ability,” she recited joyfully.
But reciting the power line is the easiest part, believing it is a struggle and having to face life in Nigeria as a person with disability is a constant battle, she says.
Living with disability in Nigeria
Auta had one of her prayers answered when she got admitted into University of Abuja to study Public Administration. But she would soon be confronted with reality of attending classes on daily basis.
That was the big hurdle she had to overcome in an institution where there are no provisions for people with special needs.
University of Abuja has no lift or elevator for students and no ramps for physically challenged students.
With no access to classrooms on top floors, Auta, who moves around with the aid of a wheelchair, had to rely on her classmates to lift her up the stairs in order to attend her classes until she advocated for all her classes to be taken in classrooms located on the ground floor.
When her advocacy got attention, it became possible for her as well as other students with disability to attend classes. But this required that all classes with a student with disability be relocated to the ground floor.
Despite this, other classrooms remain inaccessible to persons with disabilities, especially those who are wheelchair-bound.
But Auta’s adjusted reality is a single lucky case — most people with disability in the country, have no access to a range of public spaces or services and unlike Auta, have no opportunity to advocate for what is needed.
Mary, Auta’s friend, was once a victim of the systemic negligent of PLWD.
According to Auta, Mary, who also moves around in a wheelchair, was a few months pregnant and had to visit the hospital for antenatal care regularly.
She faced what was best described as a sordid experience in her life, Auta said.
During one of the hospital visits, Mary fell and lost her child because there was no ramp to aid her movement as a wheelchair-bound patient.
“There are no facilities in place for persons with disabilities to move around independently,” Auta said while recalling the story of her friend.
Mary’s predicament paints a picture of what many who are living with disability face on daily basis in Nigeria.
According to the World Disability Report of 2011, over 25 million Nigerians have at least one disability and more than 50 percent of the 25 million Nigerians living with disabilities are female.
Despite reports showing that over 15 percent of Nigeria’s population lives with at least one form of disability or another, the country neglects its most vulnerable group.
This lack of proper attention and provision for people with special needs prevents about 25 million citizens from functioning as members of the Nigerian society and in worse cases, leaves them vulnerable and at higher risk in cases of emergencies and danger.
The systematic neglect also violates their rights as human beings.
All across the country, there is a large absence of ramps, handrails, walk-ways, assistive devices and lifts in most public buildings, roads and institutions; including courts, police stations, media houses schools, hospitals, government secretariats and offices, car parks, recreation centres and even polling stations (during elections).
Visually impaired persons are unable to access government websites, independently cross roads, or participate in decision making processes.
Their education is also affected due to absence or inconsistent use of Braille, a system of touch reading and writing for blind persons in which raised dots represent the letters of the alphabet.
Public transport and services; including; trains, buses, airplanes, banking halls and ATM machines, and hotels remain largely inaccessible to persons living with disability in Nigeria.
Not only are persons with disability left to struggle through life in Nigeria, for women and girls with disabilities, it is more difficult — their suffering in fact is said to be multifaceted.
“Women and girls with disabilities face triple-fold discrimination; first as women, then as women with disabilities and because they are very poor,” says Irene Patrick-Ogbogu, a polio victim who is also the Executive Director of Disability Rights Advocacy Center (DRAC).
According to her, women in this part of the world are considered and treated as second class citizens due to a notorious patriarchy system.
On another level, being a woman or girl with disability affects how they are perceived in the society and lastly poverty – a result of a stifling environment, she said.
With no level playing field, she added that such women become targets and are subject to sexual abuse, emotional violence, gender-based and domestic violence.
“In cases where abuse occurs, justice is not considered an option,” Patrick-Ogbogu said.
Patrick-Ogbogu was heartbroken when she spoke about 13-year-old Juliet Achinaya, a visually-impaired minor who fell victim of rape. As she recalled the poor girl’s plight, her sad countenance was unmistakable.
She said Achinaya had faith in morality when she reported that her lesson teacher had forced himself on her.
The young girl shared details of the rape incident when she was found in torn clothes with blood dripping from her private area but instead of getting justice, Achinaya’s account of the moment she was defiled faced scrutiny due to her disability.
After several seeds of doubt got planted, the young girl withdrew her testimony, admitting to her guardian that there was no way she could identify her rapist — her story died and so did her sense of right and wrong.
The Executive Director of DRAC narrated another heartbreaking story of a 14-year-old girl with cognitive disability identified as Grace Ogbeh, who had no one to turn to when she was raped in school and got pregnant.
When asked who was responsible for her pregnancy, according to Patrick-Ogbogu, she pointed at the security men at her school.
However, the young girl met doubting eyes and ears, especially those who ought to fight her cause, when she was questioned about how she could identify her rapists with her disability.
In protecting the family’s name, Ogbeh’s parents withdrew her from school, aborted the pregnancy and sought other means to raise their child without formal education.
Like Achinaya, Ogbeh’s story was punctured because of her disability. The young girls never got justice due to their disabilities.
Emotional and physical abuse
In Emmanuella’s case, it was emotional and physical violence perpetrated by her husband.
At a young age, Emmanuella had her dreams of having a normal life crushed after she got immunized with an expired polio vaccine. She suffered part paralysis as a consequence and till this day relies on crutches to move around.
However, she never gave up on chasing and achieving her dreams.
Emmanuella, a Bachelor of Science degree holder in Management with a Masters’ degree in Business Administration (MBA), decided to settle down with a man, whom she considered a life partner.
However, her joy was short-lived.
It started when she met her husband. She was constantly reminded by friends and family that she was lucky to find a man despite her ‘condition’ and should try her best to always make him happy.
“My pastor’s wife told me to wake up every morning and worship my husband for marrying me in my condition,” Emmanuella recalled.
During the course of the marriage, she was subject to emotional and physical violence by her husband.
According to her, after the birth of her first daughter, her husband became distant and would only come close to her for sexual relations.
For peace to reign, she would always make herself available to him.
After a while, Emmanuella became pregnant with her second child, but her husband never wanted a part of that and demanded she terminated the pregnancy.
While she agreed to avoid his anger, she requested he spoke to both their parents about his desire. That was, according to her, when things got ugly.
“That very day on the bed, I held on to my husband pleading for him to not get angry over my request and he pushed me till I landed face flat on the floor,” Emmanuella said while flashing a weak smile.
“He left me there and walked out,” she said, recalling the painful memory.
During the same time, Emmanuella was diagnosed with a terminal illness and was left to fight alone.
“All I wanted was for my husband to hold me and assure me all will be well but all I got was silence,” she recalled sadly.
Having been married for only a few years and being told her husband deserves her worship, Emmanuella didn’t think seeking justice was not an option and so for her sanity, she walked out of the marriage.
According to her, he never looked for them till this day.
Barriers in accessing justice
“Women with disabilities are a demographic that is often rendered ‘invisible’ by the system,” says Toyosi Giwa, Coordinator of Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs) and manager at Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption (RoLAC) Programme.
According to Giwa, the justice system itself struggles to take account of exactly how many persons with disabilities are in Nigeria as well as how different types of disabilities are distributed among them.
This reality thus creates a vacuum and hinders access to justice, she said.
Giwa added that, for women and girls, there is a stigma attached to being a victim of abuse and it discourages them from speaking up.
She lamented how the puzzle is tougher for women and girls with disabilities who she said because of their disabilities are physically unable to access law enforcement agencies and in some cases can’t report their stories due to communication barriers.
In her view, Patrick-Ogbogu believes there no enough provisions in place to protect people with special needs in Nigeria.
“In most police stations, there are no sign language interpreters, how then can a deaf woman or girl report that she has been sexually abused to a police officer?, Patrick-Ogbogu asked a quiet room during an interview with The ICIR.
Babatunde Fasiu, the Legal Officer for Lagos State Office for Disability Affairs, said there are no facilities to aid the communication needs of persons with disabilities in police stations.
“Many people with disabilities cannot go to the station because they lack access,”Fasiu told Premium Times.
In most cases, they are required to pay for a sign language interpreter and those who can’t afford it are left barricaded from seeking justice.
But communication barrier and inaccessibility are not the only hindrances to getting justice for persons with disability, there is also discrimination.
According to Fasiu, this kind of discrimination perpetrated by the law enforcement agencies goes unchecked.
“No one has been prosecuted for discriminating against people with disabilities,” he said.
Not only is discrimination against the group perpetrated by those legally bound to protect them, the government also plays a role in enabling it.
In a 2008 study conducted by the United Kingdom Department for International Development, it was found that Nigeria still operates under the charity model of disability.
According to the study, it was found that the Ministry of Women Affairs, formally charged to handling the welfare and rights of persons with disabilities, “understood disability within a discourse of welfare and charity.”
Its adoption of the charity model activates its response to it.
According to Auta, persons with disability in Nigeria are seen as beggars who should be pitied, noting that, because of this, opportunities are not given to them to activate their potentials.
Globally, the standard practice is the social model of disability which places emphasis on social adaptation, inclusion, and empowerment for persons with disabilities.
In attempt to abide by global standards, the Nigerian government passed the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, 2018 into law in January 2019.
What the law says
Nigeria ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD), an international treaty to protect the human rights of persons with disabilities, in 2007 and its Optional Protocol in 2010.
To ensure implementation of the CRPD, the Nigerian government passed the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, 2018 known as the National Disability Law, following almost a decade of advocacy.
The law which aims to protect the rights of persons with disabilities covers issues of discrimination; access to public buildings, services and facilities; calls for inclusive education; access to transport systems and establishes a National Commission for Persons with Disabilities.
Almost two years after the law was signed, it is yet to be implemented. Public spaces are yet to be reconstructed to accommodate the needs of people with special needs. Motor parks and public transport systems across the states including the Federal Capital Territory are still unfriendly to physically challenged persons.
In general, public facilities and services remain largely inaccessible to the group and for women and girls, access to justice remains a mirage.
Editor’s note: Some names of victims in this report have been changed to protect their identity.
* This investigation is supported by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR.