Lois Auta is the founder of CEDARSEED Foundation, a foundation that caters for people with disabilities. Though physically challenged herself, she did not allow her situation to deter her from being a great achiever in life. She is the first black woman with disability named a young global leader at the World Economic Forum 2017 and also a Mandela Washington Fellow. In this interview with JOY YESUFU, Ms Auta talks about her achievements and the challenges of being a woman with disability as well as her sojourn in Nigeria’s political terrain.
Can you give us background information on what CEDARSEED foundation is about and what informed its formation?
It’s an organisation set up in 2011 to advocate for the rights of people with disability because we realised that persons with disabilities are not given their rights. I have travelled to so many countries and have seen how they include persons with disabilities in everything they do. There are sign language interpreters everywhere, including in the schools and hospitals. People with disabilities are also considered during employment, they reserve some percentage for their graduates with disabilities but in this country, we lack such things. We thank God for Mr President that signed the Disability Right Bill into an Act. It’s now an Act since January 23, 2019; it has many provisions for the disabled and we hope Nigerians will cooperate and make our society inclusive. So, CEDARSEED is advocating for these rights. Right to education, transportation, employment, health care service delivery and so many issues.
What will you say your foundation has achieved so far from its numerous advocacies?
We have been able to award scholarship to 256 students from basic to tertiary institutions, through the support of Sahara Foundation, and we also provided mobility aid to 120 persons with disabilities through NNPC. When it comes to the right of persons with disabilities, we were among the people that edited the Bill recently signed by Mr president.
It is going to give us our right as citizens with disabilities. This Bill is going to give us so many things such as access to infrastructure, policies, social inclusion, transport system as these things have been provided in the Bill that we want, and I believe, once it is implemented, automatically our rights will be given to us. CEDARSEED Foundation has also done many projects like training persons with disabilities on ICT through the support of US Embassy.
We recently had a program with the theme: “My body is my body” because we have realized that girls and women with disabilities are vulnerable to sexual gender-based violence. Out of 10 women that are victims, seven are usually girls and women with disabilities. When a deaf girl is raped, how can she explain and when a blind woman is sexually harassed, how can she identify the person that raped her since she cannot see? How can a lady in a wheel chair like myself run if attacked? We are the most vulnerable when it comes to issues of sexual gender-based violence. It is everybody’s responsibility, the media, the government, civil society organisation, the family to rise up and protect families and friends of those living with disability.
You recently delved into politics and contested for elective position in the just concluded elections, what was your experience?
I contested for the House of Representative in the just concluded 2019 general elections. Though I did not win, I have won in so many perspectives breaking the record as the first woman with disability that ran for House of Representatives out of 4635 candidates, 569 candidates were women. I was the only one with disability. This has inspired young people, persons with disabilities to prepare for 2023.
How will you describe the political process in Nigeria as a woman and one with disability having contested for an elective position?
The journey was not easy though it was a good outing. I couldn’t attend some town hall meetings and could not access some villages when I go out for campaign because of my condition. We had to cross rivers to get to some villages. Secondly, inadequate funding was also an issue. I couldn’t afford some of the political activities like my male counterparts. I started with the ruling APC but because I couldn’t afford the exorbitant rate for interest of nomination forms, I moved to Accord Party where I was given the form at no cost and I got my candidacy. I was able to be at the polls during the general elections. I got over 2,000 votes.
A good attempt, if you ask me, for a first outing. PDP won the contest for AMAC/ BWARI Federal House of Representatives. My outing for this year’s general elections has opened doors for women with disabilities, I have been getting so many positive feedbacks after the election. A week after the elections I was nominated by Common Wealth to attend youth inclusion international conference in Uganda where we discussed strategies and recommendations on how young people can take over leadership roles in Africa. The older generations have refused to step down for the younger ones to take over.
These young ones have the character, competency and leadership skills that will move their country forward. Another challenge I faced running for political position was ethnicity. I come from Kaduna and I ran in Abuja. During my campaign and consultations, many people asked why I am running in Abuja when my state of origin is Kaduna and I told them, I am a Nigerian and I have been in Abuja since my teenage days and now am 38. So, most of my achievements from 18-38 years is within Abuja.
I want to see the growth and development of the people of Abuja and its city seeing that a lot has gone wrong over the years. Nigerians should see politics beyond ethnicity. Humanity should be their priority. My last challenge was gender, I am a woman and one with disability at that so discrimination set in. Many have seen my records of project implemented yet refused to listen to me because am a woman and I don’t have the money.
What do you think women can do to achieve being included in governance processes in Nigeria?
My advice now is that women should come together and support each other particularly the rich ones. Let the older women mentor the younger ones to teach them what they need to know about politics. Mentorship is one basic weapon the men use against us. Secondly, money, men believe in themselves than the women, we should believe in ourselves more so we can achieve more goals once we come out with strategies and recommendations on how to go about it, we sure will achieve it.
Do you think women can get balance for better society in Nigeria?
It can be achieved when women start supporting, empowering and believing in themselves, then the 35 per cent affirmative action can be achieved. We have more women with permanent voters’ card than men in Nigeria but when it comes to elections, women prefer to vote for men than women. This has to change. Women have the numbers in the political space, why not rally round each other. Let us all support a woman that we know is capable and we can produce a president. We have more than 50 per cent of the voting bloc. Let us look beyond tribe, religion and money politics. Let the women come together and set up a movement from this moment up till 2023 where it will be a channel to tell each other of what we want and before you know it, we will be able to vie for posts and get it.
It is the women that can get what they are looking for not men giving it to them, power is taken not given. Let us take it by force and by power. Women have the power, the resources and the intellect. Women have proven to be the best leaders in the world, look at late Dora Akunyili’s track record in the health sector. If we have 10 of such in our women community, we will do well. I will still contest in 2023 by God’s grace and I hope to get the mandate to represent women.
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