Ruth Acheinegeh is a human rights defender from Bamenda, Cameroon. A leading activist in her community, Ruth campaigns to improve the lives of women and girls with disabilities in Northwest Cameroon. She is the founder of the disability rights group NWAWWD - an organisation which works to empower women and girls with disabilities through addressing social issues such as healthcare, education, and housing.
In this interview, Ruth identifies some of the specific difficulties women and girls with disabilities face in Cameroon today, and talks of her hope for a more equal society in the future.
Could you please give us a little background about what you do, how you began, and what initially inspired you?
The NWAWWD stands for the North West Association of Women with Disabilities in Bamenda, Cameroon. The organisation was founded after some conflict of interest emerged between men and women in the existing disabled people’s groups. The cultural view of many in Cameroon is that a woman cannot be allowed to lead a man, so women were blocked from taking leadership positions within disabled people’s organisations.
In 2010, I was awarded an opportunity for leadership training with Mobility International USA, based in Eugene, Oregon. I came home after a life transforming experience, and formed the first association of women with disabilities in Bamenda. Women who had been active in disability and community organisations joined the NWAWWD because we felt the need for a women-centred organisation, where we could come together and focus on our own goals.
In your experience what are the main difficulties women human rights defenders face?
Women human rights defenders face a good number of challenges. This is because they speak truth to the powers that be and want change in their community. As such, where the laws of the land are not implemented, they question why and point it out to members of their community. They do not have protection from the system or funds to advance their awareness platform.
Have you found certain groups of women are more at risk than others?
Women from minorities, marginalised women, and women with disabilities are treated in a very sad way.
I am a woman with disabilities - in my country there remain big challenges for us to attain our rights. Women and girls with disabilities face the rights issues raised by the CRPD (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) and the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women).
Violence: Women and girls with disabilities face violence in our homes and communities, on gender, sexual, and disability grounds. There is little awareness of the rights of women with disabilities to live free from violence.
Education: All girls should have the right to go to school, but our schools are not well equipped to provide access for students, and many families are unwilling to send their disabled children to school.
Economic Empowerment: Women with disabilities have the right to work, get equal pay, and to form their own businesses. Yet many employers will not employ women like us, and many women with disabilities don’t know how to run their own businesses.
Health and SRE (Sexual and Reproductive Education): Women and girls with disabilities have the right to know about their bodies and to receive health care services. Many facilities are not accessible (e.g. the distance from where women live is too far, or there are steps leading up to the entrance). Most health care providers do not have the training to work with disabled women.
Accessibility: The Cameroon government is moving slowly on legal frameworks for accessibility. In July 2018, new legislation came into effect but it has not been implemented. Women with disabilities do not have aids (e.g. crutches, wheelchairs) nor access to sign training.
Housing: Lack of accessible, affordable housing is a major issue which we have difficulty addressing.
These are just some of the things that I had to go through as a woman living with disability in my country.
What are your main concerns when carrying out your activism in the private, public, and digital sphere?
In my experience I find many things of concern. We are not represented in the international, national, nor regional levels of execution (decision making platforms).
Access to basic social needs in West Africa is a problem, and worst of all, the poverty level is below a dollar among persons living with disabilities. In consideration of all these factors, as a defender for the rights of women living with disabilities, there are many causes for alarm.
I really want to put all these problems into the spotlight, so that many will know that 17% of the population is left behind. Then people may start to act in a way that will improve the lives of persons living with disabilities.
In the face of all these challenges, what has given you the motivation to continue?
Well, what gives me motivation is the fact that I know people want to live dignified lives in a society following the rights-based approach.
As the founder of NWAWWD, I have been assisting grassroots women’s groups by providing essential materials for their basic living standards, providing peer counselling, and supporting rehabilitation of some target groups through advocacy and lobbying for integration into mainstream societies. We are intensifying efforts on the interconnected issues of gender, disability, and indignity because we see it as the most urgent issue.
We aim to penetrate with duty bearers to make society step up and accept all women with disabilities. I know it’s a challenge, but I need to keep the spirit for the future generation, so that they know and feel that they are part of their communities and will give their contribution to nation building.
If you could give your younger self, just beginning in HRD, one piece of advice – what would it be?
Never back down! We should infiltrate all avenues to put women in the spotlight.
Nothing for us without us.