Written by Lizzie Kiama, Founding Director at This-Ability. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Bodies are where we put our theories of social justice into practice. It therefore follows that the categories in which bodies are placed, willingly or unwillingly, need to be subject to careful critique. In a society driven by narrow, visual representations of standards of beauty (for example in media, advertising and popular culture), women with disabilities have been largely invisible. Value is placed on bodies that most satisfy the socially constructed aesthetic, and because disabled bodies are culturally considered an aberration, they fall short and are therefore dismissed. This dismissal escalates into outright erasure because the effect of not being considered valuable means that disabilities are not represented, included or considered for anything. The media, for example, responsible for pushing messages that shape the consciousness of societies, will always choose to play it safe by only aligning their messages to viewer expectations rather than challenging the norm that equates disabled women with asexuality.
As able-bodied women campaign against the traditional view that motherhood should be the ultimate desire of every woman, disabled women advocate for the right to be even allowed to make the choice of motherhood. Being considered asexual, their decision-making regarding family planning is considered invalid, and may even be legally restricted. There have been reported cases of disabled women’s reproductive choices taken away through forced abortion and forced sterilization.
In Kenya, disability comes heavily associated with negative connotations – a result of cultural beliefs that form the lens through which Kenyans first interact with disability, which is then perpetuated as a subconscious bias throughout their lives. Some of these cultural beliefs include the myth that disability comes about due to witchcraft, curses and punishment from God for a sin committed. The effect? Stigma, discrimination and eventually, the disenfranchisement that characterizes the lives of persons with disability. The net of injustice tightens even further for women with disabilities. We face “double discrimination” within a society, both patriarchal and ableist. The issues unique to women with disabilities often fall through the cracks of mainstream women’s rights organizations, due to lack of inclusion and representation within those larger groups.
Increasing the visibility of disabled women and awareness of their sexuality does not equate to a call for the sexualization of disabled women. Indeed, sexualization of the female body continues to be a concern for women’s groups. Mainstream and digital media carry on driving attention towards the body parts rather than the whole of women, counteracting the strides women have made in encouraging respect for the autonomous female body. Without falling into the trap of sexualization, erasure, stigmatization and exclusion must be countered, and the consciousness of society changed, through visibility and by challenging norms that equate disability with asexuality.
As part of This-Ability’s work on increasing voice and creating visibility for young women with disabilities in Kenya, in 2016 a photography series was commissioned, aimed at challenging norms and stereotypes around disability, gender and sexuality. Here, we share ten photographs which explore the need for representation of women with disabilities in mainstream media. The photographs have been exhibited in various platforms both locally and internationally, enhancing the importance of positive imagery of African women with disabilities.
I am passionate about the rights and inclusion of blind women in society
I am passionate about creating awareness on intellectual disabilities in my community
I am passionate about increasing access to employment opportunities for women with disabilities in the private sector in Kenya
I am passionate about increasing access to decent employment opportunities for women and girls with intellectual disabilities
I am passionate about the rights and inclusion of persons with disabilities in Kenya
I am passionate about disability rights and inclusion for women and girls with disabilities
I am passionate about the inclusion of women and girls with intellectual disabilities in society
I am passionate about advocating for genetic and invisible disabilities
I am passionate about increasing access to inclusive education for women and girls with intellectual disabilities
I am passionate about increasing access to sign language services for deaf women