Bringing communities together to uphold the rights of women living with disabilities

By Camille Roch, Tale Longva

Dialogue sessions with local communities on human rights are finding solutions to end double discrimination faced by women living with physical disabilities in Senegal.

A dozen women sit in front of the National Association for the Physically Handicapped (ANHM) in Thies, Senegal, after a dialogue session on discrimination.

“Every day we face challenges,” shares Absa Seye a young woman who took part in the session. “Pregnant women living with a disability face stigma and many hesitate to go out during the pregnancy.”

In Senegal, women living with disabilities often face double discrimination, both for being a woman and for their disability. Negative prejudices mean they are particularly at risk of being stigmatised and are confronted with disproportionate disadvantages compared to the rest of the population.

The challenges brought by their physical condition make them particularly vulnerable to all forms of sexual and gender-based violence. In 2014, a study from HELITE and Handicap International revealed that 9.3% of Senegalese women with disabilities reported coerced sex during their first sexual encounter.

The sexual and reproductive rights of these women such as their specific needs during pregnancy are seldom spoken about. Accessing health care services is often complicated, while the lack of qualified medical staff means they do not receive the adapted care required by their condition.

Pregnant women living with a disability face stigma and many hesitate to go out during the pregnancy
Absa Seye, who took part in the dialogue session on human rights

In response to these challenges, the ANHM and Amnesty International Senegal, are bringing together women living with physical disabilities for dialogue sessions to identify discrimination and develop solutions to address them.

Based on participative discussions involving local community members, this rights-based approach contributes to reinforce their knowledge of sexual and reproductive rights, and bolster participation from authorities and health centres in preventing discriminatory treatment.

“These sessions help to address health care accessibility issues for pregnant women, the challenges they experience in their role as mothers, and questions linked to sexuality, which for many is something they never talk about,” explains Aminata Dieye, Human Rights Education Coordinator at Amnesty International Senegal.

“I learned a lot about sexual and reproductive rights. Through the training, we understood the importance of attending health controls, since women living with disabilities have special needs to be monitored during the pregnancy. The training was also an eye opener in the sense that I can now envisage a life as a married woman like any other woman,” shares Absa.

Two hundred women have taken part in the dialogue sessions and act as advocates to inform other women within their community.

"During the training on the sexual and reproductive rights of women living with disabilities we learned some things that I would not like to explain here in front of men,” says Absa Seye (in the foreground), making the listeners laugh. Thies, Senegal, March 2015 © Amnesty International

Reaching communities countrywide

Building on this approach to initiate a change of attitude, the project is combined with interactive radio programmes to reach out to a wider audience beyond the region of Thies.

One-hour radio shows on Sud FM and Best FM have hosted medical experts and specialists from international organizations to raise awareness on the rights of women living with disabilities.

Interviews with legal experts on Senegal’s 2010 ratification of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities also focused on the legal framework surrounding their rights to denounce the climate of discrimination that still prevails.

“This project has built knowledge on the situation for people living with disabilities, from the sensitization that we have done within our families to the wider community which has been reached through the radio programmes. People have even stopped me on the street saying that they have listened to the radio programme and they were not aware of all the difficulties that people living with disability face”, shares Diobe Ndiaye, a young woman who participated in the dialogue session.

The same rights for every woman

Sustained efforts to uphold the rights of women living with disabilities have led to improvements. Meeting with local community members and training medical staff has proven efficient to disseminate information, improve accessibility to health care facilities and address disability-specific barriers.

At the maternal centre of Thies, for example, small changes are making a difference, observes Aby Cisse, who works at the ANHM. A new ramp has been installed for better access, and the obstetrics room has been moved to the ground floor so that women can consult the staff more easily.

Increased visibility brought by the radio programmes has also resulted in the distribution of crutches by the association’s key partner, made available to the members of the association.

The project led by the ANHM and Amnesty Senegal echoes the implementation of new social measures across the country to support people living with disabilities, such as the distribution of the carte d’égalité des chances – a card which entitles cardholders to financial advantages, including total or partial contribution towards the costs of the required medical care.

Yet there is still a long way to go before women living with disabilities enjoy the same rights as other women.

“New measures like the carte d’égalité des chances are needed for people living in extreme poverty as it allows them to access medical care and services. But there is still a lot to do both upstream and downstream for these measures to be fully effective. Sensitising health centres for instance, to ensure cardholders really benefit from the advantages they’re entitled to.”

“This project is also growing and it is important to involve young people and organise dialogue sessions with youth associations too, to prevent discrimination, and change mentalities,” says Aminata Dieye.

In Senegal, the training of women living with disabilities is part of the Education – Empowerment – Justice (EEJ) program, which aims to strengthen human rights and contribute to a greater justice through human rights education and empowerment initiatives, with a particular focus on gender equality, and sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls.

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