Catherine Edeh, ED, Voice of Disability Initiative: How I’ve Been Bracing The Odds As Deaf Female Lawyer, Activist
Catherine Edeh, a lawyer, is the founder and Executive Director, Voice of Disability Initiative (VDI). VDI is a non-government organisation that focuses on advancing the rights of women, girls, and children with disabilities in Nigeria. In this interview, Edeh regrets that disability inclusion is still being treated with levity in Nigeria, among other issues.
What are your thoughts on the application of disability law in Nigeria, in terms of access to public buildings in compliance with global standards?
Disability inclusion in Nigeria in terms of access to public buildings is still in a quagmire. It is so not because it is a difficult and complicated situation; everything about disability inclusion is still being treated with levity in Nigeria. We are yet to truly have a mindset shift. We have to first come out of the quagmire we are in before we can even talk about compliance with global standards.
Agreed, we have had the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act since 2018. How much of the provisions are being implemented at the federal level, let alone by the state governments? Take the public buildings, for instance. Before the emergence of the Act, most public buildings were inaccessible and had no consideration for citizens with disabilities when they were erected. It is past four years now since President Muhammed Buhari assented to the Disability Act, what has changed? How many public buildings have undergone accessibility modifications to capture the needs of people with disabilities?
Let’s not even focus the spotlight on access to public buildings only. I am deaf and my accessibility needs are centred on access to information and communication. How many news or media channels make their televised information accessible to people like me who are deaf by providing us with sign language interpreters? Some of them are so crass with their habits of stigmatising us out that even when sign language interpreters are provided during important events, some of their reporters covering the events look for and position themselves at strategic locations that enables them to cut off the interpreters or capture them in positions that make it extremely challenging for deaf viewers to smoothly flow with the communication. And all our endless advocacies that interpreters interpreting at public events should be cropped and positioned at the lower part of the televised programme being aired in a sizeable frame good enough for deaf viewers to smoothly flow with the events have never been heeded or responded to appropriately by media channels. This, to me, is because mindset shift is yet to take place.
In January 2019, President Buhari signed the Discrimination Against Persons with Disability Act, which should promote the rights of persons with disability. To what extent has the act protected the rights of persons with disability?
Like I explained before, implementation is always a big issue in Nigeria. It is one thing to have the law, it is another to implement its provision. We have not fared well as regards the implementation of the provisions of the Act. The provisions of the Act are grossly inadequate and do not fully capture our needs. We have raised these issues concerning our observations on the Act but we were often told that it is not static. And as such, with time and approvals, revisions and amendments would be affected.
Section 21 subsection 1 and 2 of the Act for instance provided for the right to free healthcare for people with disabilities. But there is no such thing on the ground. The 5 per cent employment slots allocated to people with disabilities, we have not seeing any significant implementation anywhere or reports on such. Section 30 of the Act seeks to enable people with disabilities to actively participate in politics. Notwithstanding, the practice on ground has not been encouraging. Almost all my friends with disabilities that went for elective positions in the 2023 election cycle were all frustrated out during the primaries after spending millions on nomination forms. This is not encouraging. So, I would say the Act hasn’t been fair on protecting our rights as persons with disabilities, because it isn’t backed with effective implementation.
What’s your assessment of the National Commission for Persons with Disability?
I am not that privy to the deliverables of the commission. Notwithstanding, I would admit there are complaints from some quarters within our community on the commission not living up to expectations of persons with disabilities in Nigeria. From my own observation and experience trying to interact and flow with the commission, I hold this view as well. The commission however seems to lack adequate funding to enable it to deliver on its mandate. I understand the commission is assisting some people with disabilities to secure jobs with various public offices through negotiating with governmental bodies to implement the 5 per cent employment slot. While I must commend them on this feat, it is also necessary that states benefit equally from the process. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. The commission was established to advance disability inclusion by enforcing the implementation of the provisions of the Act.
How has it been working with VDI team in protecting the rights of abused women and girls?
It has not been easy. It can be risky at times. We have been in situations where we had to slug it out with security and law enforcement officers. Some security agencies and law enforcement officers tend to view and treat issues relating to disability with levity. They sometimes say unsavoury things that can upset us. But it is our duty to sensitise them, and we have never shied away from such. They must do their work because that is what they are paid for. Any state we take projects to, we connect with the National Agency for Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) and National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) there, working with them to advance the cause of justice for women and girls with disability.
On more than one occasion I have been verbally abused by police officers we took cases to, with them choosing to side with the alleged oppressors/violators and dismissing us rudely. Whenever we encounter situations like this and that is when the spirit of higher courage takes greater hold of me. Because this is where my passion is, changing the narrative and pushing for a mindset shift. When it gets harder and I sense I have been rendered helpless, I head to higher authorities and lodge a complaint. If after every effort and I still see them trying to pervert the course of justice, I cry on social media and help would come because concerned stakeholders get to know and get involved. This is one of the instances where the digital space comes handy. Technology has truly impacted our work.
Are there examples of abused women and children?
Yes. Recently, our consultant shared a newspaper publication of a 15-year-old girl in Nasarawa state that was taken advantage of by 22 and 27 year old men respectively. This is just one out of so many. Some young girls with disabilities are turned into sex objects so early in life that they grow up not being able to control their high sexual urge, thus exposing them to so many sexually transmitted diseases, infections, and abuse. In the course of our work, I have met countless numbers of them to the extent that it has become increasingly draining because there are just so many and their experiences are usually agonising. Even the extremely old ones are not left out either. In the course of our work, we once encountered an 87-year-old blind woman who can no longer walk or stand on her own without support. At that extreme old age, she was serially raped right inside her hut in her village by an evil intruder who came all the way from a distant town in the same state to perpetrate the act. Because she has lost her sight due to old age, he would enter, and she would think it was one of her people. He would quickly choke her from screaming and have his way, after which he would escape. It continued this way until the fourth time. This time, his intention was more sinister. After having his way, he forced sharp objects including broken bottles, sharp metallic objects, and white powdery substances into her and was strangling her to death when a young man from the village who was passing in front of her hut heard the noise and raised an alarm. The evil man who rushed out of the house to flee, was given a hot chase, apprehended, and handed over to the police. He was said to have admitted that the evil act has ritual connotations as he was seeking fortifications for his political ambitions. As I am speaking with you now, the old woman reached me a few months ago crying that the culprit has been released from the prison. That her life is at risk because no one knows what next move the culprit could make.
How did your disability journey start?
I became deaf when I was in primary 5. Actually, I was done with primary 5 and was on a promotional holiday to Primary 6. I had fallen from a small guava tree used to beautify our compound, fainted and was resuscitated naturally without medication. After the fall, I realised I was having a splitting headache but being a strong child, I thought it would go away. A day or two later, I was sent to the market and when I got to the bus stop, there was no bus in sight. It was almost closing hour, so I decided to run all the way to the market ignoring the splitting headache. After the purchase, there was no money left on me, so I ran back all the way home. This was the harmattan period with all its attendant dust and air pollution. Obviously, I was exposed to meningitis otitis during the process, fell intensely ill and was hospitalised for over a month. When I was discharged from University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital UNTH Enugu, I had already gone deaf. But I was thankful that I came out alive because nobody believed I would survive. I went back to school a year after my accident and completed my Primary 6. There was no plan to train me beyond Primary 6 and as such, I was not funded to sit for the common entrance examination. However as God would have it, I was able to sail through to what I am today. God, grace, determination, hard work and resilience did it all for me. I’m naturally a talented hair stylist, I wasn’t taught and through that I was able to see myself through school. My talent exposed me to big clients like wives of lawmakers, entrepreneurs and you know home service attracts more cost.
At the Federal College of Education (Special) Oyo, I learnt how to communicate in sign language and make use of interpreters while in the classroom. My time in Oyo was an eye opener. I got to know that a deaf person can study medicine, law, or any course with support but first, you have to understand where your challenges are and how to overcome them. Acquire sign language as a mood of communication and this I did not joke with and so I braced up and it is that process that helped me through my LL.B and B.L programmes at the University of Ilorin. During my fellowship programmes in the United States of America, I got introduced to Cart Carrier Services (caption providers) as well and realised the process is even more comprehensive than the use of sign language which seems too abstract and rather confusing at times because of several words with varieties of meaning that can be signed same way, thus making thorough assimilation of topics being taught rather challenging.
Therefore, in my academic journey, I made and still make use of sign language interpreters, caption providers, copying notes from other colleagues and reading them alongside textbooks to scale through.
Have you appeared in court since your graduation?
I understand my limitations as deaf person and that getting clients will be very challenging. How many of us trust people with disability? How many will engage deaf lawyers as their lawyer? All these I had at the back of my mind while at the university and that was why I made up my mind to focus on human rights under which disability rights are based. This is what is working out now through our organisation, VDI. I never planned to appear in court to defend somebody’s assets, mine is to advocate inclusion, understand the law, what it says and how we can use it to further advance our cause. It is working out well for me.
During my court attachment and chamber attachment, I used to be regular in the court with my principal then, Chief Mike Ozekhome, who was then President Goodluck Jonathan’s lawyer. I did my court attachment with the Federal High Court headquarters in Abuja. I gained a lot of experience and that was where my goal to be a right activist was strengthened.
How can others brace the odds?
It all depends on individuals. To brace the odds as a woman or girl child with disability in a country like Nigeria is quite draining. So many things, systems and practices are designed to crush you and what you represent. You just need to develop a tough skin and a resilient spirit. In my journey to soar above deafness, I have repeatedly been pushed beyond limits. I have also made near costly mistakes. I own my errors. They make me stronger because they say experience is the best teacher. I am not the first deaf female lawyer in Nigeria but the first deaf female student that the University of Ilorin admitted. I was admitted through the centre for supporting services for the deaf at the university. They knew I was deaf before they granted me admission. I used an interpreter throughout my days at the University of Ilorin and my call to bar and the university paid for the sign language interpreters all through. There were two male deaf lawyers before me from the south, one graduated before me from Obafemi Awolowo University and the second also from university of Ilorin, both of them relocated to the United States. Currently, there’s a 400 level deaf law student in the University of Ilorin from Kaduna State. I also met one recently, who said he recently got admission to study law at Nasarawa State University.
One remarkable thing about me is my ability to withstand and overcome. I call that grace. I have grown from accepting the things I cannot change to standing up for myself and for others in the struggle to change the things we do not accept and can no longer tolerate. To brace the odds as a woman or girl child with disability in Nigeria, first come out of your shell.
The theme of the 2023 International Women’s Day, ‘Innovation and technology for gender equality.’ How do women and girls with disabilities fit into this agenda?
I do not think women and girls with disabilities are the most disadvantaged within the digital space. We are gradually growing and equipping ourselves with digital skills. A lot of girls and women with disabilities do a lot of raw talent work with just the aid of mobile phones. Online marketing and networking are the most common. Those that are self-employed are using the digital space to advertise their products and services. One of them, whose service advert I saw online once came to my place and braided my hair. I spent not less than N17,000 for the attachment and service charge. She is deaf.
Credit: Sun Online