KAMPALA, Uganda – Rose Ssanyu was three years old when she contracted polio and lost the use of her right leg. Her family thought she would end up begging on the streets of Kampala, like so many other Ugandans with disabilities. But today, aged 50, Ssanyu is employed full-time, with two daughters in university and three grandchildren in school.
Ssanyu is an expert basket weaver. She learned the skill as a teenager, when her parents enrolled her in a crafts school. “God took my leg but he gave me good hands,” she says. Today, the artisan sells her designs to Uganda Crafts, a home decor company that works to provide equal opportunities for women with disabilities. Based in downtown Kampala, the company provides jobs to 360 craftswomen and sells their creations around the world.
The Uganda Crafts store is small but bright, packed from floor to ceiling with baskets, colorful paintings and wood-carved statues. “Working allows women to be independent,” the manager, Lillian Kinene, says.
Kinene believes that being economically autonomous also increases the self-worth of the craftswomen. “When you provide for your family, you feel valuable.”
The International Labor Organization estimates that there are 5 million people with disabilities in Uganda; most of them struggle to find jobs. This is even harder for women who often have to bear additional prejudice based on their gender. When Ssanyu became pregnant, for example, the child’s father refused to take responsibility for his child. She says members of her community accused her of recklessness for getting pregnant. “People thought I could not be a good mother because of my disability,” she says.
“Employers see disabled women as burdens and they don’t know how to talk to them or accommodate their needs.”
People with disabilities in Uganda are legally protected from discrimination: in fact, the country has instituted some of the most progressive disability laws in Africa. The Ugandan constitution, written in 1995, recognizes the rights of people with disabilities explicitly, and in 2006, parliament passed The Persons with Disabilities Act, a law that ensures equal opportunities and offers tax incentives to companies who hire disabled people.
But public perception is struggling to catch up with the letter of the law. Despite a 15% tax reduction available for companies employing 10 or more disabled people, very few businesses have taken advantage of it. Kinene believes it is because disability still makes people deeply uncomfortable. “Employers see disabled women as burdens and they don’t know how to talk to them or accommodate their needs,” she says.
The Gift of Healing
Andrew Mukose knows firsthand the price women can pay for having a disability in Uganda. His mother lost her job as a university professor after she went blind in an accident. Soon after, his younger sister died because the family could no longer afford her hospital bills.
The 25-year-old entrepreneur is the founder of Gifted Hands, a social enterprise that trains blind women to detect breast cancer in other women. Mukose came up with the idea after noticing his mother’s heightened sense of touch and reading about Uganda’s growing rates of breast cancer. Soon after, he found out that a company in Germany, called Discovering Hands, was already providing similar services.
He has since partnered with them to put Ugandan women through their training program. Once certified as Clinical Breast Examiners, the blind women will be deployed to work in hospitals and local health clinics across the country.
He says it’s time to show that a disability does not have to be a hindrance for anyone. “Disability can actually be a gift that provides value to society,” he says. In this case, a 2016 study showed that blind people are better at detecting signs of breast cancer through manual exams than those with normal vision.
Gifted Hands has received several entrepreneurship awards, including from the World Bank’s “Ideas for Action” initiative.
Six women are now being trained in Germany and will soon return to work in hospitals and regional health centers across Uganda. They will go on train other women who, in turn, will use their heightened sense of touch to provide reliable breast exams for $10 – six times cheaper than what doctors currently charge.
Once Gifted Hands is well established in Uganda, Mukose plans to bring his program to other developing countries, like Nigeria and India. “This is a global problem and we want to be a global solution,” he says.
Land Rights For Women with Disabilities
In rural areas, opportunities like those offered by Uganda Crafts are not easy to find. “How can you sell crafts in a village where everyone is as poor as you are?” asks Mwerya Scovia Jenans, a program officer for the National Union of Women with Disabilities of Uganda.
The best option outside the city, she says, is to help women find work in agriculture and, most importantly, own land.
But for women with disabilities, owning land is not easy. In Uganda, most women only acquire land when they marry, yet many disabled women stay single for life, leaving them without any assets.
The union is training paralegal volunteers in 12 different districts of Uganda to negotiate on behalf of poor disabled women and get them the land they need to grow food, keep livestock or build on. Instead of acquiring land from their husbands, the union helps women convince their fathers or brothers to legally transfer them a piece of their land. “Once women get land, their families realize their value,” Jenans says.
So far, the program has helped 5,000 land-owning women with disabilities across the country. Jenans says that after handing over the land women’s parents often go on to become advocates for the organization.
“Every disabled woman that finds a job becomes proof that we can work as well as anyone: Sometimes even better!”
No one who works on the economic advancement of women with disabilities in Uganda thinks they can singlehandedly overcome the discrimination that holds so many back from equality.
But Mukose says that these enterprises serve to show what is possible. “Now we need to lead, then others will follow,” he says.
Ssanyu says progress has been slow, but the gains are significant. “Every disabled woman that finds a job becomes proof that we can work as well as anyone,” she says, “Sometimes even better!”