Ola Abu Alghaib: an activist for women with disabilities

In November, we wrote about an amazing conference. It was born from the realization that women’s leadership needs to be a priority in the health ‘business’ landscape. Not only because women’s voices should be present at the ‘decision making table’, but also because a new narrative on leadership is needed for all the young women and girls out there.

Girls need female role models to look up to. They need role models who can inspire them to work towards their own goals and tell them that nothing is impossible. Role models who say: ‘you can, and should, fight like a girl in order to become whoever you want to be!’

Inspired by this feeling, Swedish Organization for Global Health wants to share the story of some of these role models. We hope you will feel inspired and relate to them. Maybe you’ll even decide that, yes, this is exactly what I would like to do too!

First up is Ola Abu Alghaib, the current Director of Global Influencing and Research at Leonard Cheshire – an organization supporting people with disability to achieve their goals and live life at their very best.

Photo credit: Ola Abu Alghaib

Ola embodies the real meaning of the word activist.

Her job is to fight for the rights of those who are generally underrepresented or even ignored by society – women and men who live with some form of disability. Her work tells you exactly what kind of person she is, but it doesn’t tell you for how long she has been an activist, or why she became one.

Her life is the expression of leadership. Ola was born north of Nablus, West Bank, in Palestine. Like every child, she had many dreams and goals for her life.

When she was just 14 years old she underwent surgery, but a mistake during the operation resulted in Ola losing the ability to walk or move her right hand. Ola says, “this was obviously very shocking, but it didn’t change who I was and what I wanted to achieve in life”.

However, she soon realized that people around her started to see her differently. Many thought she could not live a ‘normal’ life, that she was broken, and that the only option she had left was to survive. Ola proved those people wrong. She was, and continues to be, a very determined and ambitious woman.

She is not just writing her own story but is also influencing the lives of others on her way.

After completing her first degree, Ola came across the German Organization for the Disabled, who decided to invest in this smart woman. Through them, she started to work in a rehabilitation center that supported people with disabilities. In the following 8 years at the center, she was aware that she was the only woman working there.

She felt that women with disabilities were not being given the opportunities they deserve, and knew was time for NGOs to act and involve more people. However, the issue seemed to fall on deaf ears. Her response?

Ola founded Stars of Hope. Their mission is to abolish disability and gender discrimination, while empowering women with disabilities to achieve their goals.

From that first step into advocacy, Ola has done so much work to bring the voices of women with disabilities into decision making rooms, such as the UN disability committee.

“Access to services continues to be a challenge for women,” she says. Influencing policy is fundamental to changing that.”

Ola has often underlined her belief that women with disabilities are generally forgotten by the feminist movement. She says this happens because disability-related issues make things even more complicated for women’s rights advocacy, but also because women with disabilities don’t ask to sit at the table. She says:

(1) We need to understand what disability means for a woman
(2) We must make sure disability receives as much attention as any other issue
(3) Women with disabilities need to demand their seat at the table

When I asked what leadership means to her, Ola told me: “Leadership is the privilege that comes with it”. If you are a leader, you should use that position to make your own contribution to improve things for others.

If you are a girl or a woman who feels, “I can’t be a leader,” and if you are suffering because of the way society defines you, Ola has this piece of advice: “The world is changing so take the lead and be determined, starting in your household.”

Feeling inspired by Ola’s story? Are you a woman with disabilities and want to become a leader in global health? Check out the following links that could give you some ideas about where to start, but remember – everything always starts from within, from you.

Ashoka Fellowship
Google Europe Students with Disability Scholarship
Wellcome Trust fellowships/scholarships

Women Leaders in Global Health Conference 2018

The Women Leaders in Global Health Conference was born from frustration many women working in global health felt when seeing the lack of women and diverse leadership in their field.

Women make up 70% of global health force but hold just 30% of leadership positions, and many felt the urge to direct an international spotlight on the matter.

This urge became a reality in October 2017 with the 1st WLGH Conference, hosted at Stanford University.

This year, the 2nd Conference was hosted in the UK by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Longer and richer in content, there were 2 days of panel discussions and vibrant exchange among women – and men – who work in different areas of global health.

Credit: @drawingchange

One of the main figures of this year’s conference was the former Minister of Health of Peru, Dr Patty J. Garcia. Patty is a scientist and an expert in Public Health who decided to take a new leadership position when the Prime Minister of Peru, Pedro P. Kuczynski, called her to offer her one of the most important roles in the country.

She worked within the government of Peru from July 2016 to September 2017, achieving important public health goals such as access to contraceptives for adolescent girls, availability of emergency contraception and rise in vaccination coverage.

Credit: Giorgia Dalla Libera Marchiori

She said that she would have never imagined she would be involved in politics, and even less to become a minister, but that “we need to take opportunities as women”. She took the lead and decided she would use her position to make the changes Peru needed.

Sometimes you are invited to the table and you just have to sit down and get to work. Most of the time, however, you need to open your folding chair and make space for yourself at the table. If no one makes space for your folding chair – “you sit on the table”, suggests Dr Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, Chief Humanitarian Coordinator in Nigeria.

Women have great expertise, but too often don’t believe in themselves, because the patriarchal society we live in has taught us to look down, apologize and not be a ‘bi**ch’. Women and men need to rethink gender roles and move towards an equal society, where gender, place of birth, sexual orientation or disability will not count anymore, only competence will. 

Around 100 speakers participated in this year’s conference, bringing different perspectives which animated the discussion in so many ways. Dr Ola Abu Alghaib, Director of Global Influencing and Research at Leonard Cheshire Disability, told the audience of her personal experience with disability and finding her leadership role as a person with disability.

Her life is a proof of resilience. She has achieved what she wanted, including doing a job she is passionate about and having her own family. Many told her that as a disabled woman she would not be able to reach those goals, but she decided early on to lead her life in the direction she wanted. Women with disabilities need to be part of the conversation, Ola says, because there is no equity if we, as women, are the first to exclude some of us from the running.

Every woman can be a leader.

This is the philosophy behind one of the best universities in the African continent, the Ahfad University in Sudan. Professor Nafisa M. Bedri explained how their university, founded originally as a girls school by her grandfather, Babiker Bedri, aims to form future women leaders in Sudan.

Investing in women’s education and shaping women’s roles in society is challenging, because of cultural and religious beliefs, but the benefits are tangible and impact our entire society. 

One concept shared loudly and proudly at the end of this gathering was well summarized by Ayoade: “my ceiling has to be your floor”. This means that whatever we do, it has to create better opportunities and a world free from inequities for the generations to come, for all the girls who are dreaming big and should never have their wings cut off.

See you all next year in Rwanda for WLGH 3.0!

In the meantime, find your opportunity to become a leader in your group, community, work place, country. Don’t wait, act. And while doing it, “ensure that your significant other (whether a woman or a man) is a feminist” – Professor Sarah Hawkes, Co-Director of Global Health 50/50.

Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights for Women with Disabilities

Today is World Contraception Day. As we reflect on the role that birth control and reproductive rights have played on modern day society, we must not forget those who continue to be denied access to sexual- and reproductive health (SRH) services, such as women with disability. Disabled women are often denied contraceptives or sexual health services because they are perceived to not have sexual needs or sexual lives.

More than 15% of the world’s population is affected by disability, including physical, sensory impairments, developmental and intellectual disability and psychosocial disability. This means a significant portion of our population continues to experience discrimination on what is regarded as basic human rights.

In 2007, the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities stipulated international law that all governments should guarantee access to sexual and reproductive health to people with disabilities. However, in practice, women with disabilities face challenges in accessing SRH services for a number of reasons:

  • They are infantilised
  • They are viewed as asexual or hypersexual (lacking control of sexual urges)
  • They are viewed as incapable of reproduction or too weak to carry a pregnancy
  • They are viewed as being unattractive or unfit for marriage or being sexual partners

These myths are far from the truth and are demeaning to people with disability. Yet, these prejudices continue to be the major deterrent in disabled women receiving SRH services. In part, these misconceptions make disabled women (and men) vulnerable to sexual violence and abuse within our societies.

There is silence in addressing the lack of access to sexual health services for disabled women. In contribution, the practice of forced sterilisation and abortions perpetuates the silencing and is in direct violation of disability rights. Our SRHR (sexual and reproductive health and rights) policies do not support or uplift disabled women and this is worrisome. Not enough research is done to understand and recognise the sexual desires and needs of disabled women.  Furthermore, we do not explore the intersectionality of gender and sexual dynamics that disabled people experience i.e. LGBTQ experiences.

Most non-disabled people, health workers in particular, have sometimes been described as being disinterested, lacking awareness and understanding of women with disability and their needs. There is failure in promoting inclusiveness. Many developing countries such as Zimbabwe still have general obstacles to overcome regarding SRHR. Unfortunately, in addition to those challenges we do not have policies that address the sexual and reproductive rights of disabled women.

How do we improve the challenges that are faced by disabled women? Well, we can start by:

  • De-stigmatisation and providing information for better understanding
  • Creating awareness for SRHR that benefit people with disability
  • Improving access to health systems, facilities and services
  • Improving home-based care and community outreach for client education
  • Including disability in SRHR policies, laws and budgets
  • Including women with disabilities in policymaking, strategizing and health research

In conclusion, there is still much to be done to improve the sexual and reproductive health and rights of persons with disability. It is important to have the conversation about disability and sexuality to remove prejudice and misinformation.