From Crisis to Opportunity?

Gender-sensitive disability mainstreaming in humanitarian crisis - by Marianne Fobel & Maggie Kern
Photo: Martha Peter Abach from Jonglei State, currently at Mahad IDP camp, received eye surgery organised by Light for the World. Credit: Jaco Klamer

Women with disabilities living in Internally Displaced People’s camps in South Sudan come last in many ways. They are the last to reach refugee camps, to access food, sanitation and care or to move freely. Sophia Mohammed, an expert with the disability and development organization Light for the World, explains how new opportunities can arise for women’s empowerment through gender-sensitive disability mainstreaming in humanitarian crisis.

“Me, I am deaf. I was sitting in a room in my home. I couldn’t hear what was happening. When the fighting reached my village, everyone tried to save their lives, but I still sat there, in that room, unaware of the imminent threat. I was lucky the militants didn’t find me. Somehow I made it to camp Mahad. Why was I left behind? Our community should love one another.”

 - A deaf girl now living in the Internally Displaced People’s camp Mahad. Like many women with disabilities in South Sudan, she was left behind in danger, disregarded and considered a burden by her community.

Triply marginalised

“Female refugees and internally displaced women with disabilities in South Sudan are triply marginalized through status, disability and gender,” explains Sophia Mohammed, an expert on inclusive development and women with disabilities in humanitarian crisis at the international disability and development organization Light for the World. She works with disabled women in one of the many Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) camps of South Sudan, camp Mahad, located near the capital city Juba. Many here had to flee their homes within South Sudan due to the eruption of conflict over the past three years. The majority of the camp’s inhabitants – more than 60 per cent of the 7.200 people – are women and among them are 252 women and girls with disabilities. Data on people with disabilities in the camp was unavailable before Light for the World started working with UNHCR, the organization in charge of camp Mahad. “Our intention was to really mainstream disability in the camp’s setting, management and services. This is an approach to make sure that people with disabilities are equally included in all programmes and planning at the camp,” Sophia says. She remembers the start of the intervention: “When we started working in the camp, we had no information whatsoever about the number of people with disabilities, let alone women and girls with disabilities.” To reveal and improve the level of inclusion of women and other people with disabilities in Mahad, Light for the World carried out an accessibility assessment of humanitarian services in 2014. Since then, much has improved. Sanitary facilities and food distribution were made accessible. And rehabilitation and health services are provided to women, children and men with disabilities.  

 “Women with disabilities are still often the last ones to arrive in the camps and the same is true for women with a disabled family member. They are often left behind during the flight because they might be slower and therefore considered a burden. And even those who make it to the camps are often the last ones to receive food, water and care,” Sophia shares her observation. Many women and girls with disabilities are unable to move freely inside or outside of the camps due to a lack of accessibility of sanitary facilities, food distribution and health services, but also because of an increased risk of violence and sexual assault. “Violence and abuse of people with disabilities, and even more so of women and girls with disabilities,   because of social prejudice and harmful beliefs is very high,” Sophia says. 

Accessibility - enabling freedom of movement 

“We simply cannot accept the persisting exclusion which women and girls with disabilities face each day,” Sophia says. Tackling systematic barriers means tackling the barriers in the minds of others, while at the same time offering specific support to women with disabilities.  Light for the World and other like-minded organisations focus on those topics, which were identified by the women with disabilities in the camp as priorities: Adapting cooking places and water points to become accessible, providing  personal hygiene items to women and girls with disabilities, offering accessible information about issues of health, safety and rights. “In our conversations with women and girls with disabilities many shared experiences of violence and sexual harassment, a fact which is sadly confirmed by other studies too. Fear of assault adds further to the restriction of mobility for these women and girls,” explains Sophia Mohammed. Therefore, they now receive regular self-defense training in order to protect themselves. Awareness raising lessons on various rights topics are offered as well. 

Inclusive sports as lever for women’s empowerment

Knowing and trusting one’s abilities is key to women and girls with disabilities in order for them to become more self-confident. “When we started working in camp Mahad, I saw that many young women and girls with disabilities were afraid to speak out or felt insecure with their bodies,” Sophia explains and then adds: “So we started an inclusive female sports team.” Currently 24 young women and girls with and without disabilities meet in their volleyball team every week to play together. Doing sports is not only hugely beneficial for their physical rehabilitation and general wellbeing, but also helps them to gain confidence - in their own abilities and strengths. At the same time, disability becomes more visible in the community and recognition of the youths with disabilities among their peers increases.  “At the beginning, the girls would not dare to voice their issues but now they tell me things like ‘I don’t want to get married, I want to learn,’” Sophia explains. She says this is also due to an educational programme which is part of the sports project. Light for the World has established an educational volunteer group in the camp that gives girls and women with disabilities tutorial classes after their sports projects. “Normally girls and young women would have to be home in the afternoon helping their mothers, being bound to the home. But now they stay for one or two more hours to learn”, Sophia says. 

Increasing disabled women's self-esteem

“I’m so glad to see how these initiatives have improved the self-esteem of women and girls with disabilities in the camp and how they now claim their space, speak out and move around freely,” Sophia explains. She adds: “I think it’s fair to say that even in the atrocious situation that we experience at the moment something good can develop. These girls, these women who were completely excluded before and whom we might not have reached with our programmes, now learn skills and new confidence for the future.”