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When I was growing up in Ghana, if someone had told me that one day I would hear my name announced as a member of a United Nations treaty body, I would hardly have believed it. But this is where I find myself, after many years of personal and professional experience fighting for disability rights.
As a woman with a disability living in a developing country, I have experienced stigma and discrimination. I started losing my sight around age 10; by secondary school, it had deteriorated so much that I was moved out of mainstream education and into a school for blind students. Although I felt I was still the same young woman, people in my community now saw me as hopeless. Their attitude was: “What a disaster! The end has come for you.”
This affected me deeply and I even thought of ending my life. But I was lucky to meet a girl named Grace Preko, who was blind but had completed her secondary education and gone to a teachers’ training college. She showed me there was life after the blind school, and gave me courage to carry on. I decided at that moment to dedicate myself to being a mentor for other people with disabilities and to fight against marginalization.
Since then, I have worked with people who have disabilities at the local, national and global level, with a particular focus on the challenges facing women and girls. And now, 40 years on, I was elected this week to be a member of the UN committee of independent experts that monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, or CRPD.
Nine positions — out of 18 seats — had been up for election, including a position being vacated by the only woman on the panel. The result has been good for gender parity for the CRPD, as six of these seats went to women. The election was decided in two rounds of voting: in the first, six new committee members were elected, of whom three were women — myself; Rosemary Kayess of Australia; and Miyoon Kim of South Korea.
In the second round, three additional women — Risnawati Utami of Indonesia; Mara Gabrilli of Brazil; and Amalia Gamio of Mexico were elected — so the overall gender split for the committee is now 6 women and 12 men.
My journey to being elected was challenging: I needed to convince national governments that I had the expertise to support them in implementing the Convention. The #EqualUN campaign, which promotes better representation of women with disabilities on the committee and all UN treaty bodies, provided a platform for me to show that I was qualified to represent people with disabilities. It also allowed me to highlight the vital role the committee plays in protecting the rights of all people with disabilities, especially women and girls.
The campaigning done by my own government, Ghana, through its permanent mission to the UN in New York, made an enormous difference. It was incredible to see that this goal was a priority for Ghana.
The risk to the committee was that with so few women on board, the specific needs, interests and challenges that women and girls with disabilities face would not have been adequately understood. My promise and commitment to people with disabilities is to ensure that they can take part in the decision-making processes that affect their lives.
I am ready for this challenge. As a member of the CRPD committee now, I will aim to ensure that in all its discussions and deliberations it is considering people with disabilities when working with governments to make sure our rights are respected and honored.
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