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4 Incredible Female Disability and Gender Equality Activists from Africa

By August 9, 2016No Comments

Every year on August 9th, South Africa honours women: we celebrate the everyday women, the  mothers, the daughters, the career-women, the caregivers, the teachers – all women, who are all bettering the country every day.

This year, Epic is especially inspired by women with disabilities throughout Africa: 4 powerful women who are achieving truly great things for women, with and without disabilities. Here are their stories:

  1. Shelley Barry
Shelley was travelling with a friend in 1996 on on one of the minibus taxis widely used by millions of commuters around South Africa. In a rare turn of bad luck, a gunfight broke out between two rival taxi groups, and a bullet struck Shelley, rendering her paralyzed ever since (her friend had survived the taxi violence, too).

Now a wheelchair user, Shelley has forged a successful career in media, simultaneously making a name as a unique visionary and as a voice for people with disabilities (her films are often shot from the perspective of a wheelchair user). Among other achievements, she was a driving force behind the HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns aired on local television station eTV, has addressed the United Nations in New York City, is an anti-gun lobbyist, and has won many many international awards for her films. She has also written plays about the oppression of women (“Insignificant Others” and “En Route to Bury Sara Baartman”).

As if all that wasn’t enough, she’s also worked as the Media Manager in the Office on the Status of Disabled Persons in the Presidency in South Africa, and as the National Parliamentary Policy Co-Ordinator for Disabled People South Africa during Nelson Mandela’s presidency.

She also has founded Two Spinning Wheels Productions and is a lecturer in film studies at the University of the Western Cape. Shelley is proof of art’s role in creating and inspiring social change, and just how important art is in a society.

You can see some of her work on her YouTube channel.

  1. Gertrude Oforiwa Fefoame

Ghanaian gender and disability activist Gertrude Oforiwa Fefoame lost her eyesight as a child, and knows first-hand about the struggles facing women with disabilities in a developing country. She studied to become a special education teacher and also hold an executive master’s degree in governance and leadership.

She currently works as a Global Advocacy Advisor for Sightsavers, an international NGO working in developing countries to treat avoidable blindness, and also as Vice Chairperson for ICEVI Africa.
Gertrude recognizes the intersections of the different identities she speaks for and is a part of: being a woman with a disability in a developing African country comes with its own unique set of challenges, and Gertrude’s work is not unrecognized: the Ghanaian government’s Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection nominated Gertrude for a position on the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Her work goes to show that anybody, born anywhere under any circumstances, has the potential to shape their world.

  1. Yetnebersh Nigussie

Yetnebersh Nigussie was only five years old and living in the rural Amhara Saint Wollo when she lost her eyesight. She considers this her blessing: able-bodied young girls are often subjected to early marriages. She was afforded an opportunity to attend a boarding school for the blind and then the opportunity to attend high school, something which less than 20% of teenagers have access to in her region.

She’s put her education to more-than-good use: during her schooling, she chaired at least 6 students’ clubs at her high school, and founded the Addis Ababa University Female Students Association and chaired the university’s Anti-AIDS movement in the mid-2000’s.

Now an attorney, she’s volunteered for over 20 organizations, which led to her local organization Ethiopian Centre for Disability and Development. The organization works with other notable Ethiopians to include and empower people with disabilities in development programmes.

This is particularly difficult in Ethiopia: Yetnebersh has said in 2014 “In Ethiopia, I’m not sure if you are aware, we have a new law that was passed three years ago, and that law requires organizations receiving funds from abroad not to engage in disability rights and awareness.”

Despite the obstacles, Yetnebersh has achieved a lot for her country. One of those that she’s most proud of is helping to ensure that all new buildings are required by law to be accessible to people with disabilities. She’s also opened up the Yetnebersh Academy, a school for underprivileged children. She says, “I think the more challenges we have, the more innovative minds there will be to tackle them better. I believe that one day we will have a world for all.

  1. Chaeli Mycroft

Michaela “Chaeli” Mycroft has been a force for disability causes since she was nine. The South African young activist was born with cerebral palsy, and her upward trajectory along the path of disability rights started when she and her sisters and their friends successfully raised over R20,000 (~$2,400) for a motorized wheelchair, which Chaeli had needed. This success, achieved by selling cards and flower pots, inspired Chaeli to found The Chaeli Campaign.

The Chaeli Campaign has since employed twenty people, and has won then-17-year-old Chaeli the 2011 International Children’s Peace Prize – the junior version of the Nobel Peace Prize. She was also the youngest finalist of the Shoprite Checkers / SABC 2 Woman of the Year Award – when she was ten – and in 2012 received a medal for Social Activism at the Nobel Laureate Peace Summit.

The Chaeli Campaign helps over 3000 children every year, providing much needed equipment and resources to children with disabilities in South Africa – from wheelchairs to food supplements. They also run weekly workshops which teach young adults craft skills and entrepreneurship skills: they make Sebezaphones and bean bags, and are paid for their craft.

Chaeli has said “We are all different and we all have the need to be accepted, regardless of having a disability or not.”.

We hope you enjoy this year’s Women’s Day! Never forget your power.