Girl power: reaching out to disabled girls

11 October 2014

by Tiziana Oliva

Tiziana OlivaThe International Day of the Girl Child has got me considering what girl power is all about. The Spice Girls, pop music, shouting really loudly? Well, maybe for some. But I think we need to reclaim the term.

For me, girl power should be about just that: girls having power. The power to make their own decisions, to be individuals, to live their lives their own way. The power to fight out against shocking issues such as female genital mutilation, forced marriage and sexual violence.

In the past couple of years, the international development spotlight has swung round onto girls. High level forums, including the 2014 Girl Summit and the Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit, have brought many of the issues faced by girls around the world to the fore, as has the work of Malala Yousafzai, announced yesterday as the joint winner of the 2014 Noble Peace Prize.

But amid all this, one group of girls remains in the shadows: disabled girls. They are grouped indiscriminately into the cross-cutting issue of ‘people with disabilities’ with little attention paid to their particular and extreme vulnerabilities and are in danger of being forgotten. But it is disabled women and girls who experience the highest rates of sexual abuse, neglect, maltreatment and exploitation.

I have spoken to countless girls who have been bullied and abused by family members, people in the street, teachers and other children. Take this horrific story I heard from a community worker in Nyanza Province, Kenya:

‘I know one family with two daughters – one of them is disabled. Both of them are victims of great exploitation and abuse, in addition the disabled daughter who can’t walk and can’t work during the day is locked in the family home – she can’t even do the domestic chores, so she is tied by the leg to a piece of furniture and left there all day. That is her place, where she eats scraps off the floor, sleeps and goes to the toilet. At night, her relatives bring men to the house to sleep with her for money.’

So how can we even begin to give power to girls in situations like these? Well, for me the starting point has got to be education. Disabled girls are less likely to complete primary school or progress through to secondary school than non-disabled children.

Here at Leonard Cheshire Disability we have been working to support girls complete a full cycle of primary education through our inclusive education projects in Africa and Asia.

Gender has always been a strong element throughout our projects, but I was delighted when we recently received support from the UK Government through the Girls’ Education Challenge for a project in Kenya that will specifically address the physical and social barriers that prevent disabled girls from going to school — as well as directly supporting over 2,000 disabled girls to complete their education.

Our activities include working with families (male relatives in particular), teachers and community members to demystify disability and gender. Our projects monitor the girls we support so that if there are suspected signs of neglect or abuse take appropriate action can be taken. We put accessible transport solutions in place that enable girls to get to school safely, and ensure there are separate accessible toilet facilities for girls.

I’ll never tire of telling people about the importance of education for disabled girls. Without it they will be powerless, and are likely to remain institutionalised and dependent on others their whole lives. With it, the sky is the limit. Josephine Namiriru, a young disabled woman from Uganda, writes on our website today about growing up in Uganda as a girl with a disability. Education has done so much for her: she graduated from university earlier this year and is now working to support other disabled girls across Uganda to go to school.

Josephine’s rallying call to girls around the world is: ‘You should realise your dreams — go out and get them, no matter what you come up against.’ That to me is what girl power is all about.

So, on this International Day of the Girl Child, let’s make girl power really mean something for girls like Josephine. At Leonard Cheshire Disability we will continue to fight for disabled girls and make sure that they are not forgotten or left behind. I hope you will too!

Tiziana Oliva is Leonard Cheshire Disability's international director.

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