Monday, March 19, 2018

In search of commitment and empathy

Celine Osukwu is the founder of the Divine Foundation for Disabled Persons. Read her story below. 

My name is Celine Osukwu. I was born in Ihioma, a rural community in eastern part of Nigeria during a civil war. I was very sick when I was a baby. When I was about three years old I developed a disability. My mother was supportive, she did not yield to the pressure and advise to do away with me. I encountered challenges while growing up: I was denied admission in schools because I was a disabled child. It was the first time I started feeling unloved. I started having the feeling that I was different from other children. I felt like committing suicide. I went on hunger strike. I had sleepless nights. My highly supportive mother, though she was illiterate went in search of solutions. She went seeking for help and I was later accepted into the school. On completion of my secondary school education my mother could not afford the fund for my university education. I wasted two years sitting at home but always crying. I could not learn any trade, I insisted I must go to school. My mother was also in pains but kept on counseling and assuring me

True to my mother's assurance I made it: I currently hold Masters degree from a London university, Bachelors degree from a university in Nigeria as well as a Diploma in Development Leadership from Canada. My life experience is strongly instrumental to my choice of career and work. I am a social worker. Since late 1990s I started working for the improvement of human lives. I encounter stigma at work places especially at interview levels but when given opportunities I have always proved that I can. I break stereotypes that says persons with disabilities cannot work. In my work places I perform more than colleagues who are not living with disabilities.

The story of Divine Foundation for Disabled Persons is a story of putting my effort to actions aimed at assisting improve the conditions of persons with disabilities especially the women. Because of the challenges I encountered as a girl-child growing up with a disability, I resolved to try harder to improve myself so as to be able to speak out for myself and for other marginalized persons. I see nothing worth living for in this life except touching lives of others, salvage the vulnerable and marginalized from oppression and suppression. I formed and registered the Divine Foundation for Disabled Persons in 2009 from my savings. I got technical assistance for the registration from my boss the President of Committee for the Defenece of Human Rights-- the second place where I have worked in Nigeria.

So far the Foundation has helped empower many Nigerian women living with disabilities. We provide inspirational / motivational talks, skills, financial assistance, linkages, advocacy, sensitization / educational researches, etc on issues of disabilities. We partner with organizations within and outside Nigeria to address disability inclusion and empowerment of PWDs.

Changing mindsets of the public towards persons with disabilities is like passing a camel through the eye of a needle. Societies are filled with stereotypes / beliefs that PWDs cannot do things other persons do. It is worse with the third world counties. Even among our activist community, other activists who have been working with me on other issues comfortably will suddenly relegate me to the background because I am living with a disability. Again according to one of the philosophers, man by nature is a selfish animal. In job performance employers, no doubt are satisfied with my services and would comfortably and reliably give me more responsibilities but in issues like representing the organization outside the office, they think a disabled staff is not a good image of the organization. In issues like giving award / promotion / getting credit of job well done, employers would not remember the PWD who is brain behind the success of the organization. They would sharply deviate and give the credit to themselves in their selfish belief that they are doing a PWD favour by giving her / him job. These are some of my experiences. Well, addressing them has been a herculean task because confrontation has always been the best but sometimes the management hide the information from me. I am outspoken and would ask questions which may change their plan. Sometimes confrontation does not work because it may put me at logger head with my boss, that may not be healthy for me at work and would also affect my productivity and success of the organization. When the success if the organization is in jeopardy, lives of target groups will not be changed as desired. So because of my ambition to touch lives for good I suffer certain marginalization while targeting to deliver services.

The world needs commitment and empathy in following up provisions in policies / instruments that offer opportunities for inclusion. It is one thing to draft a convention or policy like the UN CRPD for state parties to append signatures and then a bigger and more important thing to ensure that state parties implement the provisions of the convention or policy in their localities. I said empathy in addition to commitment because until the draft of UN CRPD in 2006, no policy document of international standard has mentioned the needs of PWDs. Not even the MDGs drafted in 2000. It appears that the world lack fellow feeling for PWDs. Policy makers  often forget PWDs  when making policies. For instance in my recent research on Disability, HIV/AIDS and Gender in my last academic course. All the policy documents on HIV/AIDS made no mention of or consider PWDs. 

In 2016 I was honored with an invitation to attend an opening of the Black History month in a program organized by Committee for the Defence of Human Rights in conjunction with the American Embassy here in Nigeria. Persons from the Embassy and other civil society organizations were also present. Speakers spoke on topics which included human rights of women and their active participation in governance. This was handled by a woman. During Question & Answer time I was given opportunity. I asked question around women with disabilities and how to ensure their participation in civic activities in Nigeria. She told me to always ponder before asking for some things. Her answer was that issues concerning persons with disabilities and their participation in governance should not be asked in gathering like this one.

I have recorded so many success stories, such as empowering some women with disabilities financially to take care of immediate challenges, get skills, solve hunger issue. I was part of the journey of a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace recently took place in the violent torn Northern part of Nigeria. I brought in the perspective of disability to the work of the team. We visited highly placed church leaders, government officials, traditional leaders and victims (IDPs) to hear their stories, UNHCR, UN WOMEN, etc.  In each point of visit I brought in the 'voice' of women with disabilities, sensitizing the team and the hosts the plights of PWDs, implications of excluding them and why they should not be forgotten by societies. I am also part of reporting to UN committee on human rights of the human rights situation of PWDs in Nigeria. The report will be sent to UN prior to the forth coming UPR where Nigeria will be reviewed. I have spoken in programs where I inspired and motivated women and men with disabilities to live life of dignity other that begging on the streets.