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Seynabou and Ndeye

Amazing advocates: two women fighting for disability rights in Senegal

Seynabou dressed in yellow, sat on a chair, smiling at the camera.

Seynabou leads a disabled people’s association in Senegal.
© Javier Acebal/Sightsavers

Seynabou Ndiaye is a physiotherapist at Fann hospital in Dakar and leader of a disabled people’s organisation. Ndeye Dague is president of the FSAPH (Senegalese federation of associations of people with disabilities) women’s committee.

Both are passionate advocates for the rights of women with disabilities in Senegal. We asked them about the work they do, the challenges facing women with disabilities in the country and their views on how to make a more equal world.

Why is access to health an issue, particularly for women with disabilities?

Seynabou: Access to health is an issue for women with disabilities because of the poverty context in which they live and their likelihood of experiencing discrimination. They face a very high rate of illness. They have the least access to health services, and disability-sensitive health policies are almost non-existent in Senegal.

Health promotion and prevention activities rarely involve people with disabilities. To give just a few examples: women with disabilities are less likely to be screened for breast and cervical cancer than others; people with intellectual disabilities and diabetes are less likely to have their weight monitored; and adolescent girls and adults with disabilities are more likely to be excluded from sex education programmes.

Barriers facing women with disabilities in trying to access health services include the costs of transport and health services, poor quality services, communication barriers, and negative attitudes of health care staff – women are confronted with the medical community’s ignorance and lack of training on disability.

All of this leads to a lack of care for health issues other than disability. For example, communication between the health care provider and the person with a hearing, visual or intellectual disability requires the presence of a companion. This can lead to a breach of medical confidentiality because of risks of disclosure.

There can also be psychological and social barriers. People with disabilities have difficult or limited access to basic reproductive health services, which challenges their sexual rights as well as their human dignity. They are discouraged from being mothers when their physical condition requires special treatment. They face a variety of reproductive health barriers and lack psychological or moral support during or after pregnancy.

When they are mothers, they have to persuade others that they are capable of caring for their babies. For women who are illiterate, there may be a lack of awareness of contraceptive methods, good menstrual hygiene and the prevention of certain diseases specific to women.

Ndeye: Access to health is a major challenge for women with disabilities, particularly around reproductive health. Health facilities (rooms, toilets) are not always physically accessible, and transportation is not adapted, nor is medical equipment (consultation tables are not accessible). Many women lack awareness of their health rights, and this is a real problem. They may also lack the means to pay for treatment

What do you believe are the biggest obstacles that women with disabilities have to overcome to claim their rights?

Seynabou: In claiming their rights to education, health, employment, speech and participation, women with disabilities face significant barriers. These can be physical, as seen in buildings, schools and hospitals (high concrete platforms, stairs, narrow entrances, slippery floors), or transport barriers, including inaccessible roads and infrastructure.

They can be institutional: lack of consultation (with people with disabilities and their representative groups); and legislation, policies and strategies that discriminate against people with disabilities (or lack of anti-discrimination legislation, policies and strategies).

Disability is considered a ‘specialist’ or social welfare issue. There are also social and behavioural barriers, including negative behaviour of families, communities and authorities; prejudice, pity or over-protection; and social stigma and discrimination against people with disabilities and their families.

What is the biggest barrier you faced growing up as a girl with a disability?

Seynabou: The biggest barrier in my early years was psychological, manifesting itself as a feeling of isolation, uselessness, lack of self-confidence, loss of femininity and difficulties in going through the stages of rehabilitation, as a result of the new situation of being visually impaired. It affected my life due to uncertainty about my education and my social and professional future.

Ndeye: Because of prejudice towards my disability, I was excluded from going to a teacher training school. This unfair decision left a deep impression on me and has greatly nourished my activism in the fight for the promotion and protection of people with disabilities.

What are some of the misconceptions about people with disabilities in Senegal?

Ndeye: There are many misconceptions and prejudices in our society. Some people think that coming across a person with disability in the morning can bring bad luck. Some parents don’t want to take their children with disabilities to school because they think they can’t succeed, and some even hide their children with disabilities.

When it comes to marriages and family, some people don’t want a daughter-in law with a disability because they think there’s not much she can do.

Nyede sits on a chair wearing a pink outfit and scarf.
Ndeye was excluded from going to teacher training school because of her disability. © Sightsavers/Javier Acebal

What has been your proudest moment as a woman advocating for change in Senegal?

Seynabou: A personal milestone for me was participating in the vote on the social orientation law [a landmark law aimed at ensuring equal opportunities for people with disabilities].

Ndeye: On 8 March 2010, the FSAPH women’s committee that I have the honour of leading organised a national advocacy day for the adoption of the social orientation law and the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This day was chaired by the president of the republic, who made the commitment to expedite these two legal texts. This activity was a key milestone for disability rights.

What is a key goal you are currently advocating for? If you achieve it, what impact will it have on the lives of women and girls with disabilities in Senegal?

Seynabou: Our work is currently focused on four main goals:

  • To combat illiteracy among girls and women with disabilities through the promotion of inclusive education and basic literacy.
  • To encourage women and girls with disabilities to defend their rights to physical, mental, sexual, reproductive and maternal health.
  • To combat violence against girls and women with disabilities by promoting and popularising the law criminalising rape.
  • To include the viewpoints of women and girls with disabilities in all processes of developing national programmes and projects.

Ndeye: Current advocacy is directed at the enforcement of the social orientation law and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and we will ensure that gender is taken into account in the application of the social orientation law.

Our advocacy is also focused on access to decision-making bodies. If the law is properly implemented, it will significantly improve the living conditions of women and girls with disabilities. And if women with disabilities have mass access to decision-making bodies, they will be able to advocate for their sisters and better propel the movement.

Why do you think it is important to have women with disabilities in positions of leadership?

Seynabou: I believe that having women with disabilities in leadership positions is important because previously, in the women’s community, their specific needs were not always taken into account; their voices were inaudible because they were absent from the decision-making bodies. Today they want to live by the motto of ‘nothing about us without us.’

Ndeye: Leadership positions for women with disabilities are important because women leaders with disabilities are better equipped to advocate for the concerns of their sisters (other women with disabilities) to be addressed. They will be able to amplify the voice of women with disabilities, and they will be able to contribute to the achievement of rights. The emergence of women with disabilities as leaders will make it possible to have strong movements.

What do you think needs to change to create a more equal world?

Seynabou: We need major changes to ensure a more equitable world. Young girls and women with disabilities must benefit from Senegal’s inclusive development through recognition and implementation of all their rights. In the health sector, access to health in all its forms must be improved, with accessible services and staff who are knowledgeable and aware of disability.

Policies and strategies must facilitate access to health through an adequate social protection system for people with disabilities. Inclusive education must be widespread, and the legislative texts and international conventions ratified by the state must be put into action.

Ndeye: Respect for rights, inclusion in all projects and programmes, equitable sharing of resources and access to decision-making bodies for women with disabilities could ensure a more equitable world.

text hereIrish Aid funds Sightsavers’ political participation project in Senegal. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Irish Aid and Sightsavers are adapting programmes wherever possible to meet changing requirements in the countries where we work.

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