As Reported by Blessing Mary Ocheido (Director General)
I was recently selected by the UN Women to be a young Nigerian representative for an international youth conference in Abidjan, Cote D’ivore. I was deeply elated as I consider this a great honour to me and a testament to my advocacy and community work to empower people with disability, internally displaced persons and children on the streets. For the past two years, I have been pushing for disability rights in Nigeria and installing access ramps and donating mobility aids to students with disability among other projects.
The objective of this conference was to get young African leaders (including men and women) from all over Africa together in one room and have us dissect and ponder on the rights of African women and girls especially since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on Gender Equality that was adopted almost 25 years ago in Beijing. We were to address the challenges and victories over the years and to draw up solutions as to what we, the young people of Africa can do to make the
promise of Beijing a reality especially recognising that we cannot move forward as a continent if we continue to suppress our women and girls.
The meeting held from the 12th to the 14th of August at the stately Azalai hotel. But as a member of the steering committee, I had to be there on the 11th for a pre-conference meeting. This was my first visit to another African country and I was very excited. It turned out to be a very interesting trip and I had an amazing time.
I experienced great kindness from the start of my trip to the very end. Hon. Lois Auta lent me her spare, and much more portable motorized wheelchair (mine isn’t as portable) and drove me all the way to the airport on that Sunday morning not minding that she was going to be late to church. She went in with me and stayed until I was out of sight. On reaching the check in counter, I found out that the last boarding call had been made. The airport officials and staff of Air Cote D’Ivoire ran around and broke protocols to ensure that I got on that flight. I remain truly grateful to them.
Right there on the plane, my fellow delegate, Chinelo and I met a kind Nigerian man who is resident in Abidjan who would end up being very instrumental to our comfortable stay in Abidjan. At the airport in Abidjan, I met another very kind airport official who wouldn’t let me lift a finger. He pushed my wheelchair and I plus my luggage around and made sure I didn’t wait on any queues. From that moment on, all I met were very kind people. I must say that the acts of kindness I experienced throughout my stay in Abidjan were so great I would sometimes dab at the tears pooling in my eyes. I remember one time, Chinelo lost our way to our residence because we couldn’t communicate in French to the cab driver. We stopped on the streets and a lot of people showed up to help us. One even went to the great length of finding a French-speaking Nigerian to help us out.
We also met a young Nigerian man, Davidson who showed us around town the only evening we had some time to spare. He took us for a drink at this beautiful restaurant by the river and it was breath-taking. Davidson was always there to drive us around in spite of his very busy work schedule and even on our last day, he took us to the airport at our different departure times. What an amazing man!
The consultation meeting was held under the mentorship of some UN Women country representatives and ambassadors for example Dr. Izeduwa Derex-Briggs (UN Women country representative to Eastern and Southern Africa), Dr. Mary Okumu (UN Women Country representative to Sierra Leone), Dr. Maxime Houinato (UN Women country representative to Uganda), Barr. Betty Murungi, Mrs. Nyaradzayi Gumbodzvanda, etc.
I remember when I walked into the pre-conference meeting and Dr. Derex-Briggs turned to me and said, “Welcome, Mary. I have heard so many wonderful about you.” I almost started crying especially coming from a society that does not take people with disabilities seriously and here I was in the presence of a great woman and she had heard so much about me. It set me at ease and I also reminded me that I had to deliver value at the meeting.
During the course of the conference, we analysed patriarchy, women’s economic empowerment as a driver of gender equality, violence against women and girls especially sexual violence as a tool in armed conflict and how this is absolutely reprehensible. We talked about increasing women and girls participation in STEM, politics, media and other decision making strata. One of the highlights of the meeting was when the men in the hall went on their knees to apologise to women for all the violence and abuse over the years.
As a member of a panel on the Universality of Women’s Rights, I made some recommendations on how to empower women and girls in Africa considering how very marginalised they are in the society:
- Adopting and implementing policies that protect the rights of people with disability
- Access to quality education and training for women and girls with disability by creating inclusive spaces of learning
- Representation of women with disability in political and decision-making spheres as they would then be able to push for the implementation of adequate policies for people with disability
- A support system for women and girls with disability especially at the home Parents with special needs children should be dissuaded from discriminating, abusing, starving, locking up and/killing them and adequate resources and help should be made available to them even at the community level.
- Eliminating employment discrimination to improve the economic status of women with disability
- To get all stakeholders on board including engineers, architects, traditional and religious leaders, health professionals and government officials on board with protecting and advancing the rights of women and girls with disability
- Educating and sensitizing the public on the need to stop perceiving people with disability as undesirable and as objects of charity but as equal with full human
At the end of the meeting, we had an intergenerational dialogue between the older generation of women (who were at the 1995 Beijing conference) and the younger generation on the inevitable generational shift and the need for mentorship as they pass on the baton. The meeting was truly life changing and insightful with other events like the TED talks, cultural dance presentations, social media engagement and networking lunch.
An important discovery I made on this visit to the French-speaking Ivory Coast was the uninterrupted power supply. I really look forward to the day Nigeria will solve its erratic power supply problems.
All the same, I am happy to be back to Nigeria as at the end of the day, this is home. A big thank you to UN Women (especially UN Women Nigeria for the sponsorship) for the privilege as I look forward to other events and partnerships with you. And most importantly, as I work to become a better agent for social change and a promoter of women and girls rights believing strongly, that women rights are human rights.