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.

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