The Missing Majority: Leadership of Women with Disabilities

Today is the 3rd of December, International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The official theme reminds us that this day is about “Promoting the participation of persons with disabilities and their leadership.”
Yetnebersh Nigussie with pupils Credit: Light for the World

Although there are more women than men with disabilities, the voice of the disability movement often excludes women. And mainstream women-rights groups often forget that one in five of the women they fight for have a disability. (Read the UN Report on Women and Girls with Disabilities) The result: tremendous strides forward women’s rights have been passed by... So, what can be done to ensure women with disabilities - the ‘missing majority’ - are heard and can reach those leadership positions they deserve?

old Picture of Yetnebersh Nigussie at age 5

old picture of Yetnebersh Nigussie at 5 years old

My Story

I became blind at the age of five. Growing up blind and as a woman in rural Ethiopia did not come without challenges, but in the end proved to be an opportunity. It gave me the chance to get an education, to pursue a career, to make my voice heard...because had I not been blind, I probably would have been married in my teens. 

I founded the Female Students Association at my university to take on a very male-dominated environment. Afterwards, I co-founded and later directed the Ethiopian Centre for Disability and Development to make health, education and work inclusive for persons with disabilities.

In short, I became a leader and rallied for change in areas that I feel passionate about. But I was extraordinary lucky. Most women and girls with disabilities cannot tell a similar story. 

Where disability is left out

20% of women with disabilities are employed, compared to 53% of men with disabilities. We experience violence or abuse at about twice the rate of our peers without disabilities. And we are drastically underrepresented when you look at leadership positions across the board - government, business, NGO and otherwise. 

The UN Beijing Declaration on realising gender equality, which turns 25 next year, mentions disability just once. The UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women in peace and conflict, turning 20 next year, does not refer to us at all. National actions and global awareness-raising campaigns, so vocal in their fight against old power structures, are silent on disability inclusion.

In short, the fifth UN Sustainable Development Goal – to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by 2030 – seems like a distant ambition for women and girls with disabilities. (Read the UN Brief on SDGs for Women and Girls with Disabilities)

Yetnebersh Nigussie, now, pushing for education for all

Yetnebersh Nigussie, now, pushing for education for all

Carrying this work into 2020

I have come to realise through my activism that changing societies requires committed leadership.

We need women with disabilities as leaders to mobilise resources, find allies and make change happen. It is unrealistic to expect others to lead the change we want. This is why I want to highlight this topic on 3 December.

The to-do list is long: We need more women with disabilities as Members of Parliament, ministers, ambassadors or CEOs. The women’s rights movement needs to talk with, not about us and awareness-raising campaigns like #MeToo need to open up to women with disabilities. The global development community needs to work hard to make its projects both gender-sensitive and disability-inclusive - not either or.

At Light for the World, in 2020, we will intensify our efforts to support women and girls with disabilities.

We will have a grand award ceremony for this year’s Her Abilities laureates, three amazing women that are trailblazing leaders in their field.

We will participate in mainstream UN processes – the Beijing+ 25 process or Resolution 1325 – pushing for an inclusive perspective.

And we will continue to promote the participation and leadership of women and girls with disabilities worldwide in the spirit of 3 December.

Yetnebersh Nigussie