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

Campaigning for Care & Compassion in Ireland

I’m 23 years old and I grew up in a particularly rural and conservative part of Ireland.  

The only time I ever heard the word ‘abortion’ mentioned in school was when we were doing a play in the Irish language. There was a scene where the characters were discussing abortion. I remember asking the teacher what the word translated as. She replied, “It means murder”.

I know now that if you break the translation down it would be similar to the word for a fetus. It doesn’t literally translate as murder. But that was how it was explained it to us.  

I studied reproductive biology at university and did my dissertation project in an abortion clinic in 2017. This involved interviewing doctors and nurses working in the clinic in Edinburgh about their relationship with their patients. I saw how the patients were talked about with such respect and compassion. It really brought home the stark contrast of how women in Ireland were treated.

This spurred me into action. I decided to go home and help with the Yes campaign, ahead of the 2018 referendum. Legislation is how social change is made and how rights are created.  

It was exciting to be part of a big campaign. My colleagues have been in this fight for decades, but they’d never had a national referendum like this before. For the first time ever, they said it felt like everything was to play for.

The pressure was immense because it felt like every woman in Ireland, both past and present generations, was counting on us to get this right.  

My role involved researching policy briefs or answering questions for journalists, such as abortion rates in Switzerland and Portugal after their referendums. I was also answering the phone to women ringing the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) in floods of tears, saying, “I’m pregnant and I don’t know what to do”.   

For decades, every single day, women experiencing an unintended or crisis pregnancy have been ringing the IFPA to access information and counselling. Trying to calm each woman, telling her what we could do, hearing her relief and hoping I’d made a bit of difference to her just made it all incredibly real for me.   

Many people found the No campaign posters distressing due to their incredibly negative and violent language, for example, ‘a license to kill’. I think that negativity backfired for the No campaign, as I think the Yes campaign was seen as more sensible.

I think recent scandals in the Catholic church played a role too because the No campaign was using messaging like, “Oh yes, the 8th Amendment has led to an island where we really treasure our children”. This felt tone deaf in a country where there have been so many child abuse scandals in recent years.

I also think it drove people away from the No campaign because it clearly wasn’t based on the reality of the Ireland we’ve all been living in. No campaigners displayed a kind of moral snobbery which felt like preaching. It might have worked on the Ireland of another lifetime, but not now.  

On the other end of the spectrum, the vote Yes posters appeared in rural communities for the first time, which I think was very powerful for people who might have felt quite isolated or just hadn’t talked to anyone in their community about abortion before.

In the final weeks leading up to the vote, the most important conversations were happening at the school gates or at kitchen tables over cups of tea.  

It still feels like a dream that we won. It wasn’t until they called out the two tally boxes from my home village and I heard Yes passed there by 57% that I realized what was truly happening. That’s when I knew it wasn’t just Dublin and the cities. The whole country was behind us. This realisation made me cry. It made me very proud to be from rural Ireland. 

I went to Dublin castle to celebrate. At one point, the crowd spontaneously started chanting Savita’s name. Even in a moment of celebration, we all remembered her death, and that felt very emotional.

I recall watching some kids playing, and their mothers were standing hands on hips just watching them, and they were all wearing repeal jumpers. One of them was pregnant and there were two men there with their child too. For me that was such a beautiful symbolic image of how far Ireland has come. 

For me, abortion is about motherhood at the end of the day. It’s about allowing us the right to be the best mothers we can be, if and only when we decide to do so.

Read other personal experiences like Áine’s on the Irish referendum.

As of January 2019, the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) provides early medical abortion up to 9 weeks of pregnancy. Abortion care is free for women living in the Republic of Ireland.

Best of 2018 on girlsglobe.org!

As 2018 draws to a close, we’ve compiled a list of Top 20 posts published on girlsglobe.org. We hope you’ll enjoy re-reading old favourites, or catching up with articles you missed!

“The short guidebook was written in response to the fact that 87% of women in Afghanistan have faced verbal, physical and/or sexual violence at home. Yet too often, women feel alone.”

“There are many people who have been trailblazing the fight against FGM for years, and each have important messages about how we can end this violation of human rights.”

“I feel the plight of these girls in my bones. The girls who can’t leave their homes without being harassed and groped by men in plain daylight. Girls who are married to adult men.”

“She fought for human rights and spoke out about police violence in Rio’s slums. She was 38 years-old. She was Marielle Franco. And on March 14 2018, she was murdered.”

“We have to agree that online communities with tens of thousands of members coming up with strategies to rape as many women as possible are more than just gangs of weird losers who can’t get a date.”

“The ease with which perpetrators can commit these crimes is the result of a culture of normalization that includes victim blaming and telling women to fear public space because we are not safe there.”

“The effects of Chhaupadi are extremely dehumanizing and psychologically stressful, with young girls being told that they will bring bad luck on their families if they enter their own homes during menstruation.”

“Nyaradzai’s story could be the story of many women living with fistula in Zimbabwe and other developing countries. Fistula is a silent condition, and as a result many women are suffering in silence.”

“At a time like this, when people are losing their faith in democracy and their representatives, I think it was good for the public to see that they can make their voices heard and actually influence a government’s decision.”

“How is it that so many women are experiencing the same problem, yet so much of the world is completely oblivious to our pain? Instead of being supported, we’re being made to feel like we’re ‘crazy’.”

“After a year and a half of getting nowhere with the police, Shiori decided to go public with her case. A decision like this wouldn’t be taken lightly within the Western world, but in Japan, it is almost unheard of.”

“Many young people enter this field due to their empathy, compassion and sense of justice. This makes it hard to clock out at the end of the working day and take enough time to rest and recuperate.”

“By 2030, more than 60% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. With women representing more than half the population, cities need to improve urban infrastructure to discourage harassment and abuse.”

“We can be angry about the outcome of this election, and I’m absolutely certain there are many people who walk the streets of my home country scared. It is more than time to change the conversation.”

“Our SRHR 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.”

“These thoughts craved your delight and safety always, but not today.
For today, my mind has learnt to paint my thoughts in happier shades.”

“Although half of female garment workers report being sexually active, less than a third of them use modern contraceptives.”

“It is critical that we provide young people with information on their rights so that they can know when to say no, how to say it and how to defend themselves against manipulation and abuse.”

“With social anxiety, some of the most banal things in the word feel terrifying — such as, in my case, standing in line at the grocery store, answering the doorbell or opening a text message.”

“Yesterday, a judge dismissed all charges against Imelda and she was allowed to return to her family. This is an amazing victory in a country widely considered to have the most extreme abortion ban in the world.”

3 Books to Turn You into a Women’s Rights Fighter

I have a whole stack of books which motivated me to dedicate my life to my biggest passion – fighting to end gender-based violence. Here are my top 3 recommendations:

1. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Be taken on an odyssey through Africa and Asia, meeting some extraordinary women along the way, in this fascinating book by two Pulitzer prize-winning authors. They portray the lives of different women –  survivors of forced prostitution, gang rape, acid attacks – and educate us about the abuse faced by many women around the world.

From the Cambodian teenager sold into sex slavery, to the Ethiopian woman who suffered devastating injuries in childbirth, the reader is shown not just these horrendous experiences, but also a glimmer of hope. The Cambodian girl eventually escapes from the brothel and, with the assistance of an aid group, builds a thriving retail business that supports her family. The Ethiopian woman has her injuries repaired and in time becomes a surgeon. The main message of this book is that the key to economic progress lies in freeing women’s potential. After all, “women hold up half the sky”!

2. From Outrage to Courage by Anne Firth Murray

This book is a bible in the world of women’s rights. In fact, it’s such a detailed study of women’s health in poor countries, that it became the blueprint for a course in international women’s health at Stanford University – which the author now teaches. The book features shocking but true stories about unequal access to nutrition and health care, demographic imbalances and the culture of son-preference, early childbirth and maternal death, all types of gender-based violence, the effects of war and refugee status on women, and the feminization of ageing.

What makes this book unique is that it does not simply state grim statistics. At the end of each chapter, the reader is introduced to positive stories of change grouped into countries, and short summaries of the work of NGOs. Anne Murray has travelled to majority of the places she is writing about, and knows her stuff – I once emailed her a question regarding a specific problem in Sri Lanka, and she replied to me with a list of people who could help!

Anne Firth Murray understands each and every problem down to the grassroots level, and has systematically organised this information into an invaluable textbook of the most urgent female health problems, which women face from birth till death.

3. Share: The Cookbook that Celebrates Our Common Humanity by Women for Women International

This feels like travelling the globe and popping into your head into different people’s kitchens – with a powerful story behind each recipe. Produced by Women for Women International, with recipes donated by many celebrities (such as Annie Lennox and Paul McCartney), the book also gives information on women’s lives in many war-affected countries, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Kosovo.

It is such a gentle but powerful tool to bring the story of a sister from another part of our planet close to our hearts. “Like so many good things, this book began at a kitchen table” say the editors, and by reading we feel ourselves sharing a table with many women, and it is an empowering connection.

It doesn’t matter what kind of book makes your heart beat faster and encourages you to stand up for women, the important thing is that you do stand up.

My hope is that female oppression will be something our daughters only ever read about, and never actually experience.