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–Urges women to exercise their voting rights 

By Ibrahim Hassan-Wuyo

Mrs Toyin Ojora Saraki, the wife of former Nigerian Senate President and Founder-President of The Wellbeing Foundation Africa (WBFA), has called on women to exercise their voting right, insisting that the womenfolk are going to ask their candidates questions before they vote for them, not after.

Toyin Saraki ‘s  WBFA is a member of PMNCH, the world’s largest alliance of more than 1,000 organisations for women’s, children’s and adolescents’ health and wellbeing. 

Recall that in January 2022, Mrs Saraki was appointed as the WHO Foundation’s Ambassador for Global Health.

The former First Lady of Kwara State spoke in an interview to commemorate International Women’s Day 2022. International Women’s Day has held annually every 8th of March, and this year’s theme is “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow.”  

The Wellbeing Foundation Africa joined with the PMNCH global alliance for women’s, children’s and adolescents’ health to highlight how persistent disparities caused by gender, disability and age respectively can widen inequities. When the three intersect, however, the negative impact of exclusion is intensified. 

Mrs Saraki, a Nigerian philanthropist and global advocate for women and girls, had a focus on maternal, newborn and child health; ending gender-based discrimination and violence; and improving education, socio-economic empowerment and community livelihoods in Africa. 

Commenting on  the situation of gender equality today in Africa and if there was any improvement, she said  in the interview that “if we are going to access the situation of gender equality across Africa, we must start by applauding the dedication of African women.”

According to her, “the African woman not only delivers a trial for Africa, but the African Woman also works daily to contribute her quota every single hour to the development of our Countries and in some countries, we have seen the recognition and respect given to women. In other countries, what we see is that “why Women” some sort of quality, actually on a daily basis.”

“When it comes to the  big decision and regulatory framework,  all of a sudden A Glass Wall is put in front of the women, I call it a glass wall, not a concrete wall because, we can  see the value that equality and equity brings, we can see it through this glass wall, but when we want to reach out and touch it for ourselves, we were allowed to touch it for our children, families, husband, father’s and male partners, but when we want to touch it for ourselves and for our mothers, that is the point  a small group of men, I call it a small group of men who are empowered, anybody with such a good relationship with the father we called it patriots, and that is when they remember to rise only to hold the woman down.”

” So it’s quite clear, especially what is happening in Nigeria now, but we are going to re look at the way we engage with the war for gender equality and we are going to have to exercise our voting right actually. We are going to ask our candidates questions before we vote for them, not after we vote for them.

 We would ask them “How do you feel about Gender Equality, How do you feel about Gender opportunity, how do you feel about gender equality for all. Not just for women, even for the disabled, children, aged and adolescent, so it’s clear with the points we have got.”

“With the women protest going on in Nigeria, at the National Assembly, the world has quite a bit more work to do, but am very confident that Nigeria women are hard-working, they may have been disappointed, but she is undaunted and she would succeed,” she said.

When told that persistent disparities caused by gender, disability and age respectively can widen inequities, and how were these disparities affecting gender equality in Africa, she said “older People with disabilities were three times more likely to be denied health care, four times more likely to be treated badly in the health care system and fifty per cent more likely to suffer catastrophe health expenditure.”

” So disability has a higher problem in lower-income countries, where 80% of the people with disability are not counting, though old people with disability face discrimination and  are often invisible in policies formulation, women and girls with disabilities are subjected to double discrimination and this is so because of their gender bias, 

Women and girls with disabilities include those with multiple and intersecting identities across all contexts. Such as ethnic, religious and racial backgrounds. In statuses such as refugees, migrants, asylum seekers and intellectually displaced ones, identities, age and marital status and even those affected with HIV.”

“So, the definition of being faced with disability by women and girls are very diverse, it includes physical disability, psychosocial, intellectual and sensory conditions.”

“Then when I take it back to Africa, because I think in Africa, we are not really counting for our selves, how many people are actually having a disability, when I was the First Lady of Kwara State, back in 2004,  I engaged in a program that was being run by Mrs Stella Obasanjo, who really focused on helping children with disability, and we were thinking how many people in Kwara State were living with a disability.”

” For me, I quoted 2,500 available wheelchairs for them,  and I remembered, that I wanted to give the wheel chairs out on children’s day,  I thought I could find it very difficult who to give the wheelchairs out to because apart from the School of Special Needs in the State, which had about 400 children, of which I adopted to be a beneficiary as my program, I couldn’t see many disabled people around, it was when I held the ceremony,  I remembered them and drive out to Ilorin Amusement park, also being the day of handing over back to the government, so I decided to combine the program. I was shocked to see over 2000 children, of people that are in need, I had no idea of this at all that they are taking care off.”

“So we need to recognize that the African Culture hide disability, we hide and look after them in the home, but because we are hiding, the disabled ones can not access available facilities. When I saw all the people bringing out disabled children, I was asking them, I didn’t know you have a disabled child and their response was that, they never knew how they can access help.

So we should stop the stigmatization because most of them had no knowledge of who to go to for help or how to access available facilities,” she said.

 Asked in what additional ways do discrimination and exclusion manifest for women and girls with disabilities in Africa, the former Kwara First Lady said 

“the systematic powers, coupled with the failure to prioritise  the collection of data.”

” The situation around People with disability has perpetrated the invisible within societies as multiple and intercepting Framework, in various aspect of lives. Girls and Women with Disabilities have lowest school accessibility and other services, they tend to experience negative and hostile altitude among care and service providers, lack of accessible buildings, equipment and transportation, affordability of Services, family health and suffer 3 times  the risk of rape and at sometimes survivor  of domestic violence and other forms of violence over a long period of time, than women and girls without disability.”

“This is also the issue of absence of appropriate sanitation, facilities for girls with Disabilities in schools, including separate and accessible toilets, In addition to lack of education, resources and support for menstrual hygiene which compliment the ability to properly learn to manage their own hygiene, that makes some young girls with disability stay at home and some of them are sent to special needs school. Even when you can mainstream them in regular schools there must be special provisions for them.”

” This  kind of deprivation can also lead to great violations of right, Such as forced use of contraceptive.  Sexual and reproductive health scheme is now being recognized in several countries such as the Convention of the rights of the child, convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and girls and the convention of the rights of PWDs that are  now in practice. Inspire of all this, needs are still being under prioritized. There is need for a change.”

“In the Humanitarian setting, the situation is worsened when conflict and displacement are on the increase. The discrimination PWDs face  are high.  Protection systems are destroyed, making them more vulnerable to exploitation.”

“A survey conducted in two  countries from southern Africa reported that the problem of health care system was lack of availability of services, inadequate equipment and also the socio-economic status of  the disabilities was actually the socio determinant of increased violence.”

“My foundation, the Wellbeing Foundation Africa is focused on preventing blood injuries which may cause a little disability, this we do by improving maternal and child health from the very start, educate the mothers through the Manucare 360 flagship anti-natal and postnatal programs. This is to enable them access quality health care services and practice Inclusion and accessibility for all.”

Commenting on how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the situation for women and girls with disabilities in Africa, she said the challenges faced by persons with disability PWDs were amplified during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Some of them who required assistance from others such as interpretation by sign language, were no longer available, as they were to keep social distancing. So they had difficulties expressing themselves, where to access care and education, they also face high cases of Gender-Based Violence and this compounded the systemic barriers, they could no longer access the police and justice mechanism. So they were confounded in their homes.

They lost the usual system of support.  This is why we have to understand that we need to increase the support given to women and girls with Disabilities to breach the gap caused by the Covid-19.”

On what was  needed to be done, at country level, or regionally and globally, to address these inequities, she said “the 2030 SDG goals is crystal clear that disability can not be a reason for lack of access to developmental Programs and realization of Human Rights.”

“The SGD include 7 targets, which is specifically for persons with Disabilities. So there is the need for intersecting and intensional approaches that can empower women and girls with disability. Also dedication to more resources and technical support, integrating other forms of solutions is important and developing guidance as well as practices, which explicitly considers PWDs to promote enabling environment for them.

State Government should ensure the full respect and fulfilment of PWDs at all levels.

We definitely need more data to support evidence-based programming and Accountability.”

She said persons with disabilities needed to be empowered,  and be engaged meaningfully in all policies and programs of government that affects their well being.

We have to improve disability-related support services and we need to classify these services as essential services. Then there would be a need for strong Advocacy and Communication to reach more persons with disability through a multisensory campaign. So that no one is left out in accessing support when they need help,” she said.

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