Around 100 amazing Pakistani women gathered to celebrate their achievements and vowed to remove barriers to create an inclusive society for all.
by Sana Jamal
ISLAMABAD – “Disability is not a disease but a lifestyle! We have to come forward together to change society’s attitudes and not ourselves” young and energetic Anam Khan declared. Anam’s claim visibly resonated in the hall and hearts of all the extraordinary Pakistani women who have overcome disabilities with their impressive attitude.
Around 100 amazing Pakistani women gathered to celebrate the achievements of disabled women who are confronting discrimination and working to improve the lives of women and girls with disabilities in their communities.
Maria Qureshi, who hails from Sialkot, had a very hard time at the age of 15 when she became a a ‘special person’ from a ‘normal person’. “Growing up with spinal cord injury, I was literally waiting for the day of my death” to be relieved of the burden of depending on others for very basic needs. “But then I meet these amazing people who were disabled yet they had a fun lifestyle and that was the beginning of a new life.”
Self-management training, she believes, changed her life. “Without exercise, I was literally bedridden but after regular training, I feel I am living my life to the fullest.”
Wheelchair-bound but independent and spirited Maria Qureshi is now working at National Forum of Women with Disabilities and mentoring young people how to improve their lives on their own.
Maria was also part of the Special Talent Exchange Program’s (STEP) one-year campaign, during which more than 90 training sessions, TV talk show discussions, and workshops were held to enhance public and government awareness about rights of women with disabilities and to offer them livelihood training.
The conference and celebration in Islamabad marked the conclusion of a one-year, US$375,000 program to support Pakistani women with disabilities funded by the American Embassy and implemented by STEP. The event was organized by STEP and National Forum of Women with Disabilities (NFWWD) in collaboration with Women Parliamentary Caucus, US Embassy Pakistan and Sightsavers at Pakistan Institute for Parliamentary Services.
Mr. Atif Sheikh, President of STEP congratulated and encouraged women who are now working as professors, doctors, directors and community leaders.
Participants lamented the fact that there is no recorded data on persons with disabilities in Pakistan. However, there is one statistic which is emerging fast. “Women with disabilities are coming forward as leaders and their numbers are on the rise!” claims Abia Akram, CEO of NFWWD.
The major problems faced by people with disabilities are accessing basic services such as employment, education and transportation.
The dilemma is similar for all persons with disabilities, let alone women. The seminar, however, was focused on challenges and successes of disabled women. The reason being that “women represent more than half of Pakistan’s disabled population and 80 per cent of the women with disabilities live in rural areas, in the most vulnerable conditions” Abia said.
These women have no faces, names and records as they are kept hidden and thus socially isolate. “They are excluded from the mainstream of education, health and development” and are perceived as a curse for the family.”
Nonetheless, Pakistani women are defying all odds, overcoming disability and barriers to empower themselves as well as others facing similiar hurdles.
American Counselor for Public Affairs Christina Tomlinson joined the Pakistani women leaders to celebrate their achievements and was amazed to hear their success stories. Although United States is still progressing to remove the barriers disabled people face, but “we are glad to work with Pakistan to make societies more inclusive” as “Promoting disability rights is an integral part of our efforts to promote human rights more broadly.”
“We want to remove barriers and create a world in which disabled people everywhere enjoy dignity and full inclusion” she remarked.
Ms. Tomlinson also announced that as the program comes to a close, the American Embassy and Mobility International are beginning collaboration on a new program to empower Pakistanis with disabilities and their allies.
Secretary of the Women Parliamentary Caucus MNA Shaista Pervaiz Malik regretted that Pakistan government has not implemented policies to facilitate person with disabilities at all levels. Delighted to hear the inspiring success stories of women, she announced a special Khadija Tul Kubra award to appreciate women leaders.
The Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) Ordinance 1981, Special Citizens Act 2008 and Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) (Amendment) Act 2014 indicate a minimum level of understanding on the government’s part. But the focus needs to be on implementation side of the laws as well as to address the overall attitude of society. Addressing and improving the public attitudes towards disability is also vital to build inclusive societies.