‘Not free while any woman is unfree’: Challenging our Feminism to be inclusive of Disability

Written by Malaika Aryee-Boi, Knowledge Management Assistant, AWDF

My colleagues and I at AWDF had spent the past few weeks thinking about how best to make knowledge and knowledge products more accessible, relevant and inclusive. The conversation had increasingly expanded from products to understanding the underlying power constructs of exclusion for women with disability. Thinking about what this means to me, and our feminist movement, I delved into volumes of research, consultations and reflection. As AWDF joins the world to celebrate International Women’s Day, I wrote this to reflect on the amazing African feminists choosing to challenge harmful norms, sexist practices and patriarchal structures that continually devalue and exclude women every day. I intended for it to celebrate, and stand in solidarity with African women with disabilities — those we know and those we don’t.

If you are reading this as a person without a disability you might not realise just how difficult we make the lives of our siblings, friends, neighbours, and strangers with disabilities in our various communities. Negative beliefs and attitudes, along with little to no effort to make our environment accessible to diverse bodies and neurotypes, lead to discrimination and violence for those living with disabilities. Combined with the negative beliefs and attitudes we harbour about women in our patriarchal setting, women with disabilities in Africa are in a peculiar marginalised position.

This blog post is part one of my reflections on disability and African feminism where I will share some of the ways that gender and disability intersect to create specific barriers for women with disabilities and emphasise that our feminism must always be inclusive of all women’s experiences, as it does in fact, depend on it. The second part, which I urge you to look out for, will focus on disability and inclusive knowledge management practices for feminist organisations.

Understanding Disability

The UN convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted in 2006, defines persons with disabilities as those who “have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others’’. (emphasis my own) This definition comes after decades of disability rights activism from across the world that pushed back against a solely medical definition of disability to include the social barriers which significantly impede equal participation.

There are many models of disability which can help understand the experiences of persons with disabilities, guide government policies, and shape self-identities. I will briefly share two here. The medical model places disability in the body, and treats it as a disease to be cured. This stands at great odds with the actual experiences of people with disabilities who often do not consider themselves sick and challenge the idea of a “normal” body in the first place. Importantly, this model does not hold society accountable for being inaccessible. (Letief and Ratsosa, 2018)

The social model does. It shows how social environments, attitudes and restrictions imposed on those with impairments create disability. (Begum 1992; Emmet and Alant, 2006) With disability identified as a form of social oppression, activists in the late 20th century made important claims to their rights to inclusion in societies that were keeping them out. However, a strictly social model risks ignoring lived experiences, reducing impairment intervention and normalising an ableist worldview that expects everyone to participate in society the same exact way. (Shakespeare and Watson, 2002; Bailey, 2019)

Today, as we can see in the UN phrasing, a hybrid of the two models is widely used. Disability is broadly understood as neither purely medical nor purely social but rather as the interaction of the two.

Women with Disabilities at the Intersection

Women with disabilities around the world have to contend with misconceptions based on their disability and their gender. Notions that people with disabilities are less valuable due to their impairments, are dangerous, are asexual, are helpless and child-like, or are incapable of experiencing emotional/physical pain or pleasure combine with notions that women are weak, passive and sexual objects. While men with disabilities might be able to cling to the power and social advantage afforded to them by their gender, women with disabilities are doubly marginalised. (Begum, 1992) The phenomenon of double marginalisation becomes especially clear in the specific violence and exclusions that women with disabilities face.

Statistics report one in three women experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. For women in Africa, reported physical violence in nearly half of countries were at a prevalence of 40%. (Raising Voices and AWDF, 2019) Women and girls with disabilities are more exposed to these forms of violence. (UN, 2012) One of such specific violence women with disabilities face is physical and psychological violence and neglect by caregivers, both at home and in institutions meant to serve them. This includes withholding of assistive devices like wheelchairs; denial or threat of denial of food or water; controlling behaviours involving restricted access to family; forced abortions and sterilisation; and verbal abuse and ridicule related to the disability. When compared with men with disabilities, women with disabilities are more likely to experience poverty and as a result are less able to escape the cycle of violence. (UN, 2012)

One specific area of exclusion of women with disabilities in Africa is in sexual and reproductive health rights. Christine Peta, Zimbabwean disability studies scholar, has researched and written much about the neglect of women with disabilities in child-rearing services, comprehensive sexual education and reproductive health clinics. (Peta 2017a; 2017b; 2019) The failure to acknowledge women with disabilities as full sexual beings negatively impacts access to needed services and information to ensure that these women can take control of their bodies and health, access support in case of sexual violence and be informed about safe sex. Women with disabilities have and continue to challenge the ableist constructions of sexuality that do not recognise their diverse and rich sexualities.

Our Feminist Calling

“It is our contention that racism, sexism, and ableism share a eugenic impulse that needs to be uncovered and felled.” — Moya Bailey, 2019.

As feminists, it is our call to challenge patriarchy and all the ways it manifests to exclude and target those who are not white, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual men. For us to stay true to our purpose and ensure a free, dignified and safe world for all, we must be inclusive of disability. As we continue learning, I hope that we will begin to interrogate how our personal politics and praxis can be more inclusive of women with disabilities.

Until the next part of this blog, I wish you all a fantastic day. I leave you with this short clip, Extraordinary Women: Maah Keita, The Ambassador, highlighting the wonderful Maah Keita, Senegalese bass player and activist with albinism. Albinism mostly becomes a disability due to visual impairment and attitudinal barriers due to appearance. Women with albinism in Africa in particular face immense stigma, social barriers and violence. Maah works to counter misconceptions about the condition to ensure that everyone can live freely. We love it!

Further Reading!

Visit AfriREP to read more about disability and gender here and here.

Visit Women Enabled International for information on ending violence against women with disabilities.

Find the UN Report by Ero Ikponwosa highlighting barriers and violence against women with albinism here.

African Women’s Development Fund supports autonomous organisations on initiatives for transformation led by African women.

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