Lois Auta-Udonkanta

November 2022
Lois Auta-Udonkanta.

Lois Auta-Udonkanta is the CEO of the Network of Women with Disabilities (NWD) – one of the partners working on our inclusive family planning project in northern Nigeria, which 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, it has over 400 members, who they support through diverse initiatives in areas such as agriculture, entrepreneurship, gender-based violence, livelihoods training, political participation, sexual and reproductive health and rights and sports.

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.

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.

Establishing the NWD was one of my good moments in life. This 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. Bringing them together, not just in Nigeria but also in other countries, was a moment I will cherish forever.

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

The impact of a lack of representation in data, means persons with disabilities will not be included in the planning and implementation processes of any services. It means exclusion, and underrepresentation, and it also means marginalisation. That is why we need to include women with disabilities in all processes – from inception, planning, and all the way through to implementation, so their voices are heard and the challenges they face are captured.

I always emphasise three barriers stopping women with disabilities, although we have many. 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 resources is perception. Some people think women with disabilities do not have emotions, or sexual feelings, and 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 when I entered 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.

Programmes should be designed for women with disabilities.

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. Resources on family planning information need to be translated and accessible in Hausa, or in any other major languages that are used.

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.

The major challenge I have here 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 here.

When we talk about equality, we are talking about getting everyone in the room and giving everyone the right to access health services and infrastructure. Equity is everyone getting the health services to fit them. Acceptance is, understanding we all enjoy or have access to different types of health services. And belonging is ensuring health services are given to everyone without any fear of judgement. We need to belong, we need to be accepted, and we need to enjoy equity and equality. We also need to know the diverse needs and resources we have in accessing family planning.

I am excited about attending the International Conference for Family Planning in November 2022. I am going to represent women with disabilities, their needs, challenges, and priorities when it comes to health and family planning.

I will be there on behalf of women and girls with disabilities accessing healthcare services – emphasising the importance of family planning. We need to sit down together and strategise, and we need to ask each other questions about how we can do it together and share our experiences and expertise. And I’m sure there will be policymakers, development professionals, partners and other key and critical actors and stakeholders who will be there to listen to us.

The challenges of women with disabilities are many but seeing them succeeding, overcoming those 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.

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