Lois Auta-Udonkanta: “I see my disability as a bridge and not as a barricade”

November 2022

Lois Auta-Udonkanta is the CEO of the Network of Women with Disabilities (NWD).

NWD is a partner in our inclusive family planning project in northern Nigeria. The project is led by Sightsavers and BBC Media Action.

Lois founded the Network of Women with Disabilities in 2019 with the mission of including women with disabilities in national policies and agendas. So far, the network has over 400 members.

Lois’s story

“I was affected by polio when I was two years old. I am 42 now so I have been living with polio for 40 years now. I see my disability as a bridge and not as a barricade. And I also see my disability as an opportunity to change the world.

“The NWD is the first network for women with disabilities in Nigeria. Our members are women with disabilities who are founders, managers, managing directors, CEOs, and founders of business enterprises not just in Nigeria, but also in other countries. Bringing them together, was a moment I will cherish forever.

The importance of disability data

“When data on people with disabilities is available and used effectively, it can help communities and their advocates, and policymakers, prioritise actions to address barriers and promote equitable access to inclusive health information and services.

“A lack of representation in data, means that people with disabilities aren’t included in the planning and implementation of any services. It means exclusion, underrepresentation, and marginalisation. That is why we need to include women with disabilities in all processes – from inception, planning, and all the way through to implementation of services, so their voices are heard and the challenges they face are captured.”

Societal barriers to inclusion

“I always emphasise three types of barriers stopping women with disabilities. Attitudinal, infrastructural and institutional barriers capture all the barriers women with disabilities face in society.

“One of the challenges women with disabilities have in accessing family planning information is perception. Some people think women with disabilities don’t have emotions, or sexual feelings, and that they don’t give birth to children. So attitudinal barriers are a big problem in Nigerian society.

“I’ll never forget an incident that happened a few years back in a taxi. There was a discussion on sexuality on the radio. The taxi driver looked at me and asked, “do women with disabilities have sex?” I said, “What? How can you ask this question? We are humans, and we have feelings like every other person. And I know some of my friends have given birth to two, three, and up to four children. So, what are you saying?”

“What about barriers in infrastructure? Some women with disabilities cannot access hospitals or clinics due to a lack of ramps, a lack of sign language interpretation, and a lack of braille material in the medical centres. It’s very difficult for a person in a wheelchair or crutches to be able to navigate primary healthcare facilities in Nigeria independently.

“Another factor is institutional barriers. Our policies, legal framework, and laws do not capture the needs and challenges of women with disabilities. For example, the Nigerian Disability Act includes no representation of women with disabilities, their sexual and reproductive health and rights or their wellbeing.”

The need for inclusive family planning services

“Women with visual impairments, for example, use screen readers on their phones and laptops, and most of them have android phones. An accessible app could be used to inform them about their sexual and reproductive health and rights. Those at the grassroots, need these resources about family planning to be translated into their local languages.

“Creating awareness is crucial to empower women with disabilities to decide the type of family planning they want. How are they treated by their partners? Are their partners aware of family planning? Have they discussed this as a couple? These are ideas we can share with them and work towards building the knowledge of women with disabilities and their partners.

“A woman with a disability has the right to date anyone she wants to, she has the right to her body and the right to decide whether to have children or not, or whether to give birth or adopt.”

Ensuring equitable access

“A major challenge in Nigeria and in many other countries, is the implementation of policies, laws and legal frameworks for women – with or without disabilities.

“The Ministry of Health in Nigeria is doing well. They have a policy on sexual reproductive health and rights with an emphasis on women with disabilities. I was part of drafting the policy. But implementing the recommendations is a big issue.

“When we talk about equity, we are talking about getting everyone in the room and understanding the diverse needs there are in accessing family planning. We need to sit down together and strategise. We need to ask each other questions about how we can share our experiences and expertise and make sure that everyone has access to the health services they need.

“The challenges of women with disabilities are many but seeing them succeeding, overcoming barriers successfully and focusing on their abilities is rewarding. I hope partners will continue to be inspired by our initiatives, and more partners will come and join hands for the inclusion of women with disabilities in their development projects.”

Lois Auta-Udonkanta.

Lois Auta-Udonkanta

CEO, Network of Women with Disabilities, Nigeria.

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