But None Of Us Is New To Disability

Young Women And Disability: Ensuring Sexual And Reproductive Health And Rights To Leave No One Behind with Tanzila Khan

by: Kira Vikman

Tanzila Khan (left) and Jaana Rehnström

Tanzila Khan (left) and Jaana Rehnström

Who, what, where, when and why?

It was a dark Wednesday evening right after Halloween when Tanzila Khan arrived in the Centre for Social Innovation in New York, November 1st, 2017. She was visiting the US from Pakistan and Aware Girls saw an opportunity to host her as a speaker in an event about women with disabilities and their rights to sexual and reproductive health.

Jaana Rehnström, the Kota Alliance President, a retired gynecologist and the facilitator of this event, opened the night by welcoming our special guest as well as other participants and telling a little bit about Kota. She relayed how little she was prepared during her previous professional career to take care of the sexual and reproductive health needs of women with disabilities, and how neglected the issue is overall.

Tanzila Khan is a motivational speaker, an activist and an author of “A story of Mexico” and “The Perfect Situation”. In addition to that, she is a wheelchair user since birth, so she knows what she is talking about. An atmosphere of open discussion, that was a combination of Tanzila’s experiences from her point of view and her expertise and good questions and comments from participants, was created quickly.

The biggest problem in gynecological care seems to be that the treatment is available but it is not always accessible, for example, getting information to the ones that need it can be challenging at times. According to Tanzila, in Pakistan, the bigger obstacle is the data because in people's eyes, the disabled population is not in the mainstream world. Instead, there are three populations: disabled people in the road, begging -  seen as an opportunity for the family to make more money. The second is people who get exploited in advertisements, but do not even get paid. Then there’s the third population, the people in the middle, struggling with jobs and lifestyle. And all of them have sexual and reproductive health rights.

“Oooh you can’t walk! But you’re so pretty!”

Disabled women are not seen as sexual beings. In everyday life they are encountered by the preconception that they will not get married because no one wants to marry them (although this does not so much apply to disabled men). And if they will not get married anyway, why would they need education? A job? Makeup? It seems that some question the whole existence and worth of disabled women; why would you need anything at all if you will not get married? Because in that case, you will not give birth to children either. Is the life of a woman valuable if she does not procreate, bear children to this world? Why would God waste such a pretty face? “Women are seen unfit to reproduce children if they are disabled, even if missing a pinky”, Tanzila says. “Disability does not live in the uterus!” 

The problem is in people’s mindset and how they view disability. It can be invisible. And it is something we all encounter ourselves during our life cycle. In reality, it would not have to restrict one from living their life close to the same way that non-disabled people do. In fact, we all need assistance when we are young, babies, and most of us when we get old. We have all needed and might need someone to take care of us in the future as well. Thereby, not only permanently disabled people face physical obstacles. “Disabled people are not just a group of people living somewhere”, Tanzila explains. They are around us, some of us are them, many of us face the same challenges now or later in life.

“We need dignity”

Tanzila points out that in her role as a motivational speaker companies expect her to motivate and empower their employees, even though they will not make changes to their facilities to help a disabled person's everyday life. In Pakistan, disability is a stigma. It has a strong base as a charity case. Tanzila describes how funding goes very much to advocacy instead of real actions. Funds and resources are spent on wheelchairs “but there are no places to go with a wheelchair!” For example, there are too few accessible washrooms. “Compassion doesn’t help, it is not realistic”, says Tanzila. “You have to create a win-win situation”. Just like restaurants have an opportunity to get new clients if they distinguish themselves by allowing access for people who need ramps.

Many organizations have a male agenda, according to Tanzila. There is a need to work together and to move forward from a charity. There is a need for making new laws and educate. But most of all, “people need to understand we can’t wait for the government to be educated, we can’t wait for people to take focus. We need to get up and take initiative. -- [People] have to vision and understand problems that other people have, to look at their challenges”. Because none of us is new to disability,  it takes all of us to change.

Follow Tanzila Khan on her websiteFacebook, Twitter and Instagram
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A Health Handbook for Women with Disabilities
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Addressing child, early and Forced Marriages in Cameroon

By Etali Genesis Akwaji

In Cameroon forced early child marriage, modern day slavery and child sexual abuse is very prevalent and predominantly in the rural areas of the country. These rural communities are besieged by limited access to information, ancient traditions, ignorance of existing national and international legislation on child marriage, and an ever-increasing orphan population that is vulnerable and susceptible to forced marriages and abuse. Childhood illiteracy perpetrated by limited parental care and support is a contributing factor to why most child brides hardly speak out against their abuser.

Traditional, religious and cultural practices continue to expose the girl child to multiple cases of abuse including forced marriages, sexual exploitation and exploitation in domestic servitude.

Victim of Modern Day Slavery

Victim of Modern Day Slavery

UNFPA and UNICEF reports on Cameroon reveal that girls between the ages of 10 and 14 years are the most vulnerable to forced early child marriages.  The 2015 state of the world’s children report ranks Cameroon 14. More than 80% of Cameroonians live in rural-patriarchal-communities practicing forced child marriages with huge health, economic and social consequences on girls.

Also, the prevailing and harsh poverty in rural areas is a push factor that makes the girl the only realistic potential source of income to parents. They thus arrange marriages for these girls and charge a bride price that will enable them to buy food, pay for the education and school needs of the boy child, and other household commodities. Paying off debts is also a reason when the parents give the daughter away in the place of payment. UNFPA projects 500,000 child brides in Cameroon by 2030. The impact of HIV/AIDS increases orphan population and girls vulnerability to forced early marriages, modern-day slavery, sex trafficking, rape and related abuses. The project area is leading to HIV/AIDS in Cameroon with a resultant increase in vulnerability.

The absence of strong community mechanisms and goodwill to address the issue continues to undermine the efforts of women and girls to achieve their basic rights and to escape pressures and abuses. The combination of these factors and their cumulative impact on educational, legal, health and economic indicators contribute to high levels of human insecurity among adolescent susceptible young girls, married adolescent women and those they care for especially in rural communities in Cameroon.

Economic inadequacies put low-income families at perpetual vulnerability hardship and thus result in the strong-willed trade in girls to older men in marriage in rural communities for financial security. This situation remains a perennial obstacle to the evolution and growth of young women and girls. This is aggravated by prevailing gender-based violence,  entrenched cultural practices which discourage parents from fully investing in the education of women, and an unsupportive policy environment, all motivating factors for girls to drop out of school. Most adolescent young girls in our rural communities, see marriage as the only ideal and compelling option when they drop out of school. Add to that they're struggling every day lives’ conditions exacerbated by poverty.

Widows are burdened by the challenges of raising orphans left behind as their precarious economic situation do not permit them to afford their basic needs and that of their grandchildren.

Sustain Cameroons' project seeks to create a voice-space for victims and potential victims of forced early marriages to engage in community dialogue and facilitate behaviour change. It also hopes to address problems associated with poverty for women, girls, orphans and vulnerable children with the focus on increasing access to education, economic empowerment and health promotion. The projects involve the development of income-generating activities with provision of start-up grants, initiation of village savings and revolving microloans (VSRM) schemes, and business management skills training. It shall empower victims of child marriages, women and low-income families through VSRM, IGAs and cooperatives. Sustain Cameroon invests in extensive community activism for the advancement of the rights of women and girls and support victims and potential victims of forced early child marriage in community activism, providing basic sexual and reproductive health rights education including menstrual health to girls. Activist shall provide tools for safety to vulnerable girls.

Married girls are expected to further benefit from improved reproductive health services, including pre- and post-natal care; increased access to information; and greater social capital through vocational and life-skills training programmes. Indirectly, children of young married mothers, alongside their husbands and in-laws are also beneficiaries of the project.

SUSTAIN Cameroon strives to be a leading nonprofit in Cameroon acting as a clearinghouse for the promotion, and protection of the rights of widows, girls and orphans and vulnerable children. 

Read more about Sustain Cameroon and take action to support our activities and programs on our social media; website, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter,: You can also;

  1. Share our pages with friends, colleagues, corporations, companies, institutions, etc and encourage them to donate, support and share in their networks.
  2. Become an advocate for Sustain Cameroon and donate to our initiatives for women’s economic empowerment, education for orphans and vulnerable children, girls and children from low income households; to reverse cultural taboos that impede the attainment of their full potentials.
  3. Support and raise awareness for donors to fund improve health and educational infrastructures and facilities in our rural-hard-reach communities in Cameroon and Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole.
  4. If you would like to volunteer for a group assisting Sustain Cameroon in New York, please contact the Kota Alliance at info@kota-alliance.org.

Visitors from Pakistan at CSI

By Saba Ismail of Aware Girls

On September 01st 2017, Aware Girls hosted a group of visitors from Pakistan under the State Department“International Visitors Leadership Program”. The theme of the event was “Countering Gender Based Violence Through Coalition Building”.

Jaana Rehnstrom, the Kota Alliance President welcomed the group and discussed their work to raise awareness of gender inequality and to empower women and girls locally and abroad.  The Kota Alliance  provides working space in collaboration with the Women’s Lab of CSI (Centre for Social Innovation in NYC) ‘for female social entrepreneurs and women’s organizations to co-operate, and to have access to resources, services and tools.

The founder of Project Liberation, Ivy Woolf Turk told the audience about the challenges women face being incarcerated and life after prison. 90% of incarcerated women have faced abuse and more than 60% have faced conventional domestic violence, but there are no rehabilitation programs for these women and therefore Project Liberation -workshops offer a fusion of life coaching, arts based intervention, yoga, meditation and other healing modalities for women in prison and for the recently released. Project Liberation activities assist women in building solid foundations empowering them to see themselves as whole, not broken, and helping them to adapt to a law-abiding life guided by authentic goals and desires.

Jonathan Kalin, the Founder of Party With Consent addressed the role of men in ending gender based violence. Party with Consent is “a movement that facilitates dialogue about sexual violence prevention through events and education”. Kalin encouraged the audience to challenge the current norms pertaining to masculinity to end gender based violence.

Aware Girls addresses gender based violence and challenges that women and girls face in Pakistan and in the U.S.A. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province of Pakistan the tribal and feudal traditions and attitudes against women are deeply rooted in culture, which is highly discriminatory towards the women, who often face the human rights violations. In Pakistan women’s sphere is the household, restricting them from leaving their houses and isolating them from society –  from the schools, market, universities, business and politics. How does all this relate to the USA? According to the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence, in the U.S.A, “41 – 61% of Asian women report experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime and three women are killed every day by an intimate partner (in the U.S.A). Discrimination towards the women must be challenged not only in the developing world but in the western countries as well. Throughout the world.

 In Pakistan, I had a dream that every girl be able to live her life to her fullest potential without gender becoming a barrier to it. So, to bring the changes I wanted to see in the lives of girls we started a campaign to educate girls about their rights and to give them leadership skills, so that they can speak up for their rights in their families, and can be the agents of change in their communities. We established an organization called AWARE GIRLS which is led by young women and girls, and which aspires to empower young women and girls so that they can have equal access to education, employment, sports, social services and decision making.

Aware Girls is combating violence against women by sensitization, making women to stand up for themselves for the violence they face. To accomplish their goal, Aware Girls is educating girls, establishes Girl Power clubs, mobilizes communities by using digital media, by communicating with policy makers, engaging men and providing a helpline counseling to enable women to reach the services they need, such as shelter, medical aid, legal aid, education and entrepreneurship services. In Pakistan Aware Girls is advocating for laws against domestic violence through a Charter of Demand developed in consultation with women and girls.

A few stories illustrate our work:

Tasleema, a factory worker, joined the Human Rights Education Program of Aware Girls, when giving birth to her 3rd daughter, but was extremely angry as she wanted to have a son. After attending the program Tasleema understood all genders being equally good.

Sadaf, before participating in Aware Girls program treated her daughters earlier in an unequal manner. After attending Aware Girls program, Sadaf changed her unequal attitudes and manners towards her own daughters.

Maryam stood up for herself when harassed publicly and took the male harasser to the police station.

When I arrived in New York, I saw the gender norms being persistent and thereafter I committed myself for the work to challenge patriarchy in New York as well. In Brooklyn, some girls and women face challenges such as not allowed to do internships, not allowed to use public transport and many girls facing domestic violence. Therefore we want to expand the work of Aware Girls to New York.

To advocate women’s rights, Aware Girls is part of global discussion networks and committees related to gender issues. The organization is also taking part to different United Nations -related commissions on gender equality issues. I have participated in the UN Commission on Status on Women, UN Commission on Population and Development, and UN’s High Level Political Forum and many other High Level Events in the United Nations. I have been fortunate to be invited to take part to global discussions and advocating for women’s rights.

 All human beings regardless of their gender born free, and with equal dignity. Bravery is not about controlling women and about violence - bravery is about accepting the equal human status of other human being, bravery is about speaking up for the violation of human rights.



Menstrual Health Management matters. Period.

By: Nadia El Hannari

349 events from Kenya to Togo, 18,000 tweets, and more than 280 news articles – the 4th annual Menstrual Hygiene Day (MH Day) on May 28th brought wide attention to the global issue of women facing challenges in managing their menstruation. By bringing together non-profits, the private sector, government agencies and the media, awareness about menstrual hygiene challenges around the world and education on menstrual hygiene management, the day spurred much needed discussion and action.

Challenges women and girls face managing their menstruation vary: from social norms and lack of education about menstrual health management, to socio-economic factors making managing periods with dignity a challenge. In India, 72 % of women do not maintain menstrual hygiene, leading to many health issues. This is caused largely by poor knowledge of menstrual hygiene management. In Nepal, the tradition of chhaupadi still exists in rural areas, even though deemed illegal by the local government. Women are considered impure during menstruation, and therefore have to stay isolated away from their home: in cattle sheds or huts, and banned from consuming nutritious foods in fear of them contaminating the foods.

Menstrual health is not only an issue in developing countries where the underlying problem is usually in social and cultural beliefs and lack of education. In developed nations, economic hardship cause women to not be able to take care of their health as needed. In England, school girls having to use socks as pads made national headlines and shined light on the issue on the struggle low-income girls and women face every month trying to take care of their menstrual health.

In the United States, the struggles are similar. Recently, especially the case of homeless and incarcerated women has been discussed. Women in jail have been reported not being able to afford expensive sanitary products from commissary, or being denied access to them altogether. In February, a bill called Menstrual Equity For All Act of 2017 was introduced – a great bill emphasizing the importance of menstrual health management, and the issue of inequality women face due to their economic standing.


It is clear that menstrual health needs to be discussed, and MH Day has created a platform that reaches individuals, community leaders and national decision-makers worldwide.