A Trailblazing Voice for Inclusion - A conversation with Abia Akram, Disability Activist and Sightsavers Trustee
Abia Akram is based Pakistan and is a trustee on Sightsavers UK Board. She is also the Project Director for the Special Talent Exchange Programme, a cross-disability organization; CEO of the National Forum of Woman with Disability; World Member for the Asia Pacific Woman, Law and Development Organization; Global Chair for the Global Forum on the Leadership of Women and Girls with Disability; and Chair of the Asia Pacific Women with Disability Network.
She has been involved in the disability rights movement since 1997 and aims to give a voice to women and girls with disabilities. Since then, she has been instrumental in leading the disability youth and women’s movement in Pakistan and the Asia-Pacific region.
What are some of the major issues surrounding disability in your community, especially the experiences of the women in Pakistan? And have pleas from disability activists like yourself been given a listening ear by the government to make their lives better?
Women with disabilities often face double or even triple discrimination. Firstly, gender discrimination, then disability discrimination, and then if you are from a religious or an ethnic minority, often there is discrimination associated with this. It’s even worse if you are not economically empowered, you face even more challenges.
The main barrier is getting basic access to health services, education, and employment opportunities. Women with disabilities face enormous barriers to these everyday rights.
Gender-based violence and sexual harassment is also a huge problem. Sadly, women with disabilities are often at an increased risk of sexual harassment.
The situation is complicated. But with the support of key organizations like Sightsavers, other stakeholders, and state representatives who are working on the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, we can make sure the rights of women with disabilities are upheld.
What is your biggest challenge as a disability activist? That one thing that no matter how you try to work it through it still always poses a problem?
Every day I am trying to contribute to the disability sector in many different areas because the diversity and disability sector is small. The people who are working on the policy level are the same ones who are contributing to the community and are also the ones trying to advocate and reach out to the families of those persons with disabilities.
A big challenge for women and girls with disability in Pakistan, and many countries in the global south, is that we are considered as needing a charity-based approach, or a medical one because we are considered as dependents, and as burdens on families. But we just want our human rights. We want to be able to access health care, education, and employment, and be able to vote and participate politically, on an equitable footing like everyone else.
Introduce us to what Sightsavers is and your role there.
Sightsavers is an international organization that works across Africa and Asia to end avoidable blindness, treat and eliminate neglected tropical diseases, and promote equality of opportunity for people with disabilities.
It is governed by a global board of trustees, including myself, who oversee everything the organization does to make sure it stays on track, spends money wisely, and achieves its goals.
I have the shared belief with Sightsavers that everyone has the right to earn, learn and be happy. I am thrilled to be able to assist in its work to promote equal opportunities for people with disabilities.
Women with disabilities are more prone than able-bodied women to harm and discrimination. What are some major ways you think we can ensure that the world sees this and takes it as a serious human rights issue?
One in five women worldwide have a disability. Women with disabilities are also three times more likely to not get the health care they need, compared to men without disabilities. And shockingly, the literacy rate for women with disabilities may be as low as 1 per cent.
In addition, women and girls with disabilities experience a higher risk of violence and abuse. They may face up to ten times more violence than those without disabilities. They also continue to be neglected in sexual and reproductive health policies and programmes.
What’s worse is that most of this discrimination and violence goes unreported and unpunished. Existing laws, policies, and programmes on gender-based violence rarely address the situation of those with disabilities. It is also difficult to find quality data broken down by both gender and disability, making it difficult to get an accurate understanding of the experiences of women and girls with disabilities. We continue to be invisible to the public and policymakers.
Many of these issues boil down to the simple fact of representation and lack of it. We need to keep talking about this as an issue, so that people are aware.
We have just implemented a campaign with UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, on ending gender-based violence against women and girls with disability. Part of that campaign is about creating psychosocial support services for women with disabilities who have been facing trauma and discrimination during the COVID response, and also recent floods in Pakistan. We made sure that all communications are accessible by using sign language, Braille, and voiceovers, so it could reach out to the very grassroot level of women and girls with disabilities.
We also spread awareness among service providers like the police, health and education authorities, and crisis centres, so they can learn about the challenges faced by women and girls with disabilities.
If a woman using a wheelchair is going to the police station but there are steps, how will she get in? If a deaf woman wants to report a crime, how will she communicate what happened to her if they cannot use sign language? There are no witnesses for the blind woman, so how can she explain that? These are all issues that need addressing to provide the necessary support for women with disabilities who face violence.
What is your favourite thing about being a disability activist?
If just one person’s life is changed, then I feel proud of my contribution in the disability sector. Because I'm giving that vision of trying to change the lives of women and girls with disabilities.
Previously, I was working individually, at the community-level. I went to the community to meet with families of disabled women and talk to their parents, encouraging them to come out of their home and trust that we can provide a space where they can talk about their rights. It was challenging but rewarding. Now, I also feel it's important to work on policy and legislative reforms, because that creates systematic change in the lives of women and girls with disabilities.
We are working now as an advisor to the National Commission on the status of women, the National Assembly of Pakistan, the woman Parliamentary caucus and the Ministry of Human Rights. We advise how they can engage women and girls with disabilities.
Women with disabilities can try to change the whole system. It won’t be possible in one day and we cannot wait. This change will come, but you have to do something to bring that visibility.
What is your favourite thing about your work / role at Sightsavers?
Being on the Board of Trustees at Sightsavers is a huge honour for me, and it's a great opportunity. We are getting equal representation, equal opportunity, and our voices are heard at that level. I think that creates a huge impact in the disability movement.
Sightsavers is considering equality at all levels. We talk about training; we talk about inclusion and representation of more organisations or persons with disability across our work. Being on the board is giving me a great learning experience and at the same time, giving me the opportunity to share my experiences equally.
Previously, Sightsavers was mainly working in the health sector but now the work on disability in development is creating a huge impact. It is making sure all its programmes are inclusive, for example, making sure hospitals and eye health services are inclusive. It is creating a huge impact.