As a college student in Nigeria, Ekaete Judith Umoh refused university housing that segregated students with disabilities from the larger student body. Her conviction struck the housing director. He was impressed that a woman, let alone a disabled woman, dared to challenge university policy.
“Women with disabilities are just an afterthought,” Ekaete offers plainly, recounting the details of her early activism. Her accomplished presence is tempered by a warm, magnetic gaze.
Yet the housing director refused her request to move — he insisted that the disability floor needed Ekaete’s brand of boldness. She will tell you today that his refusal was definitive; it would guide her life’s work.
As a child, Ekaete was stricken with polio. Her parents embraced their daughter with support and love, despite a cultural climate that ostracizes its disabled members. Ekaete would have every benefit, every opportunity and every measure of respect afforded a child without disability.
In the halls of her university dorm, peers would share stories of trauma caused by parents who had disowned and shunned their children. The injustice of their trauma motivated Ekaete, who founded the Family-Centred Initiative for Challenged Persons (FACIP).
Ekaete chose a family-focused approach, seeing in her own experience the difference that supportive parents can have. She recalls conversations with parents who publicly recognize seven children and hide their seventh disabled child at home. This kind of societal marginalization is an accepted norm. FACIP provides families with strategies for supporting disabled children. As Ekaete says, “it is garbage in, garbage out” — children who have been rejected will suffer from low self-esteem and act out in anger. Children who are encouraged will develop confidence and contribute positively to their societies.
The initiative also focuses on self-efficacy of women with disabilities. “We need women with disabilities to speak for themselves not have someone speak for them,” she says.
FACIP also focuses on the sexual health of disabled women, a taboo topic that leaves many women without access to proper healthcare. Often hidden from society, disabled women are seen as objects to be exhausted and raped. Intolerance and ignorance are then perpetuated. Ekaete shared one woman’s story of being mocked by an insensitive doctor who was astonished that she could get pregnant.
In Nigeria, there are currently no laws protecting the rights of people with disabilities. Ekaete is working with the Nigerian legislature to pass the first bill of this kind. She also collaborates with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Social Policy to amend existing documents to accommodate women with disabilities.
“We’re asking questions, and we’re still asking questions.”
Ekaete received a grant from the Vital Voices Leadership and Advocacy Fund for African Women, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.