The Earth & I interviews the National Union of Women with Disabilities of Uganda.
“I used to hate myself because of this physical appearance which distinguishes me from others, but today I have realized I was wrong.” — Ugandan woman who benefitted from self-esteem education.
What was the genesis of your organization? How was the group received in the beginning and what were its initial goals?
The National Union of Women with Disabilities of Uganda (NUWODU) is an indigenous organization formed in 1999. Its purpose is to act as an umbrella organization for all categories of groups serving girls and women with disabilities, including physical, sensory, and mental impairment.
Its membership includes Disabled People’s Organizations as well as GWWD (Girls and Women With Disabilities) groups and national associations. As of March 2021, NUWODU has a membership of 77 district associations, which represents over 60% of 146 districts in Uganda.
NUWODU provides a strong voice for a common cause, particularly to defend, protect and promote the rights and advocate for equal opportunities for women and girls with disabilities, a population that wasn’t adequately represented in women’s rights organizations.
NUWODU was established with the following six objectives:
Address the special needs of girls and women with disabilities in Uganda.
Strengthen the decentralized, grassroots groups of women with disabilities in Uganda through building their capacities, training, education, and provision of assistive devices.
Act as a coordinating and monitoring body and establish an information center for women with disabilities in Uganda.
Advocate for equal opportunities and rights for women with disabilities regardless of age, nature of the disability, tribe, or religion.
Unite groups of girls and women with disabilities at the grassroots and the existing national organizations of women with disabilities.
Mobilize resources for programs for girls and women with disabilities regardless of age, nature of the disability, tribe, or religion.
How has NUWODU evolved since its founding? Tell us some of the challenges and breakthroughs along the way.
For the last twenty years, NUWODU has grown in strength and size. Every five years, delegates from member organizations come together at a General Assembly, which is the supreme policymaking body. The Board of Directors makes policies, and the secretariat is charged with responsibility of translating the decisions of the Board into programs and implementing them as per the constitution.
With respect to our work, there has been continuous growth in the freedom to engage, initiate, and intentionally influence one’s life circumstances—and raise self-esteem among women within the GWWDs. Women learn to reflect on life more deeply and change their perceptions about their situations. Many cease to hold negative attitudes about themselves; as one woman said, “I used to hate myself because of this physical appearance which distinguishes me from others, but today I have realized I was wrong.”
A good example of our members is a deaf woman who has established a school in Ruhadaganzi Sub County, in Bushenyi. This lady never experienced school education herself, but she got an inspiration to start a school and transform her community.
Women benefit from the networking that happen during the many trainings and workshops that are held. For example, a member of one association decided to run for political office. Because of community support, she ran against male candidates and won; she is now the main political party’s vice chairperson for the Western region.
NUWODU has focused on helping women economically, introducing them to management tools and business planning to help them engage in gainful self-employment.
Beyond that, NUWODU has joined meetings, locally to internationally, on matters of inclusion of people with disabilities in humanitarian actions, education, transportation, and services. The theme of the 2016 celebration of the International Day of People With Disabilities was: “Inclusion matters: access and empowerment of people of all abilities.”
How did your members cope with COVID-19?
The global pandemic COVID-19 greatly affected NUWODU. For instance, with more than ten NUWODU projects operating across the country, the impact of COVID-19 caught NUWODU by surprise—there was a lack of proper preparedness to run virtual offices.
Then, in the communities, there was increased gender-based violence among families of women and girls with disabilities, increased pressure on district associations to respond to COVID-19, disrupted livelihoods for women with disabilities, and lack of access to basic services including medicines and products for sexual reproductive health and HIV.
All the above highlighted challenges provided a more strengthened and innovatively caring family of women and girls with disabilities in Uganda. But this strange situation also exposed the need for far more cohesive strategies to address the new challenges facing these women.
NUWODU’s website was created to raise awareness on disability and visibility for NUWODU as an organization for women and girls with disabilities. The platform has fulfilled its purpose beyond expectations because through it, the organization is receiving expressions of interest for partnership and knowledge acquisition for budding disability rights advocates. The web is maintained and managed by a team of passionate, committed, and tireless advocates and supporters.
NUWODU could be described as more than an organization; would you say that it’s a community, a sanctuary, even a family? In what ways do you care for and serve each other?
Poverty and disability cannot be divorced from each other without sustained efforts in ensuring equitable and inclusive education to promote the employment of persons with disabilities in the informal and formal workforce.
When COVID-19 revealed the urgent need to embrace technology for virtual transactions and work, NUWODU partnered with the Government of Uganda through the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) to provide digital literacy for persons with disabilities. This project, funded by UCC, is being implemented throughout Uganda, and seeks to equip women with disabilities with practical and soft skills in ICT.
Below are two women’s stories of breaking the chains of dependence.
I am Ms. Namukaya Florence, of Buchamata village, Irongo Sub County, Luuka district. I am aged 42, with physical disability, married with 9 children. When I married, my in-laws did not like me, saying their son had married a girl with leprosy. My husband left the village, we were extremely poor, and we used to work in people’s gardens to get food.
We did not have land but could work for people and get land to use in return.
When the project came, I was hesitant because we had been registered many times, sometimes for money, and the people would disappear. When we dug down the paspalum [grass] in the compound to plant vegetables, the neighbors laughed at us, saying, “Disability is a curse, and the curse is permanent.” However, from the time I joined the project, my life and family have never been the same. We stopped working for people in their gardens.
I am Ms. Abalo Jeniffer, a blind woman, aged 46, of Can pe Kun Women with Disabilities group in St. Joe village, For God parish, Layibi division in Gulu city. I am a beekeeper, a basket knitter and a division counsellor representing Persons with Disabilities in Layibi division. I was trained in bee keeping in 2013, and in 2020 NUWODU collaborated with the Umbrella of Hope, an organization in Gulu, to train the 27 members of the group in basket knitting.
As a blind woman, Umbrella of Hope wondered how I could benefit from the training and proposed to train my son in the skill. But I insisted on learning from their training and from my son until I learned the skill. My son and I can now knit baskets for sale besides selling honey. Basket knitting is a good business whose money is handy as opposed to bee keeping whose money is seasonal. As a widow, I can pay fees for my children in good schools in Kampala.
The COVID-19 pandemic, brutal as it is, has brought NUWODU many opportunities for partnerships, linkages, and coalitions. Many people have come to appreciate the NUWODU’s approach and work, and this has culminated in many vital partners getting involved to provide the skill or bridge the gap that NUWODU is lacking. The notion of leaving no one behind is alive and active in our work.
Share with us, please, your goals going forward and how you see the future for Uganda’s disabled women and girls.
NUWODU is acting as a “whip” and “watchdog” that introduces new knowledge and is monitoring the changes in attitude and practices at community, regional, and national levels.
Media is an important component for advocacy, and in the last year, visibility of disability rights for women and girls with disabilities—including in political office—has increased by leaps and bounds. Our media engagement has generated partnerships, development of research papers and reports on issues affecting women and girls with disabilities and increased awareness on disability inclusion.
In a nutshell, NUWODU is recognized as a family that unifies, cares for one another with respect and love which is a core value. This is visible in the far and wide stretches in its efforts to reach the most vulnerable and most remote to have their voices heard.
*Betty Achana is a public health specialist and the executive secretary of the National Union of Women with Disabilities of Uganda.