Centering marginalized voices for intersectional programming: UNABU’s advocacy at the intersection of gender and disability

The Global Disability Summit (GDS) offers a concrete mechanism for collecting new, ambitious, and widespread commitments, which are critical to achieving real change for persons with disabilities. The first Global Disability Summit held in London in 2018 (GDS18) generated an unprecedented level of focus on and commitment to disability-inclusive development. The second Global Disability Summit to be held in Oslo and virtually in 2022 (GDS22) will build on the results achieved at the first Summit to further accelerate much-needed progress towards the fulfillment of the rights of persons with disabilities worldwide.

Since GDS18, the Disability Rights Fund (DRF) and the Disability Rights Advocacy Fund (DRAF) awarded 35 Global Disability Summit 2018 (GDS18) grants totaling $1.61 million USD to 22 organizations of persons with disabilities (OPDs) in Africa, Asia, and Europe. In the run up to GDS22, we’re sharing stories of some of these grantees and their advocacy. These stories offer a way to learn about DRF/DRAF’s grantees’ achievements around the world. We hope you enjoy meeting our grantees and discovering more about their work!

Though Rwanda has made great progress toward gender equality, women and girls with disabilities still face considerable stigma and exclusion, disproportionately higher rates of gender-based violence (GBV), and barriers to accessing inclusive support services and justice. Umuryango Nyarwanda w’Abagore Bafite Ubumuga (UNABU), one of the  few Rwandan organizations of women with disabilities, is working to change these outcomes. When DRF became UNABU’s first funder in 2015, UNABU was an organization with one staff person and a budget of $10,000 USD. In the years since, UNABU’s donors, outreach, and staff have grown tenfold, positioning the organization to share its expertise on inclusive GBV responses and grow its work, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Starting in 2018, UNABU received DRF funding and technical assistance to lead a survey to gather greater insights about the discrimination faced by women and girls with disabilities. Of those women and girls with disabilities surveyed, more than 40% had experienced violence. However, they could not access legal or support services at the government’s Isange One-Stop Centers (IOSCs), which aim to provide services and support to survivors. UNABU raised awareness based on the outcomes of this research. The Rwandan government understood that this was an issue, and consequently made a commitment at GDS18 to “ensure the IOSCs are accessible to people with disabilities, including the sight and hearing-impaired, and collect and report disability and gender-disaggregated data on the experience of GBV.”

UNABU was eager to follow up on the government’s commitment. Leveraging DRF funding dedicated to fostering coalitions, UNABU developed an alliance with Haguruka—a national women’s rights NGO focused on preventing and addressing GBV through legal assistance, psychosocial support, and referrals for survivors—and Legal Aid Forum—a network of 38 NGOs, professional bodies, universities, and law clinics that provides free services to marginalized groups. This coalition organized a team of community mobilizers—women with disabilities, some of whom were survivors of violence. Mobilizers receive training on the functioning of justice system in Rwanda, how to identify cases of gender-based violence, facilitate referrals to IOSCs and other community services, and provide support to survivors as they navigate the justice system.

7 people walk holding a banner reading Assessment of the accessibility of isange one stop centers to people with all types of disabilities'. The district hospital is behind them.
UNABU’s inspection visit to Shyira District Hospital as part of their assessments of accessibility of the Isange One-Stop Center.

Grace is one such community mobilizer. She is a young woman with a physical disability that she acquired during the Rwandan genocide. She first learned about UNABU during an awareness-raising meeting organized in her community and was selected as one of the community mobilizers. During a meeting with other women with disabilities , Grace felt comfortable to tell her own story. After this, she was trained as mobilizer, provided with counseling sessions  and regained her sense of life and self-confidence.

After she lost both her parents, Grace struggled to find a safe place to stay and ended up living with her uncle. There, she survived ongoing physical and emotional abuse, and her uncle registered her under false names to prevent her from inheriting her mother’s property. Grace was forced to use a national identity card with fake names of both father and mother, robbing her of her real identity as well as the family inheritance. Having shared her story with UNABU, Grace’s case was referred to Haguruka and taken to court with free legal representation. Even before winning the case and reclaiming her identity and inheritance, Grace expressed gratitude to UNABU, saying, “If I had the opportunity to own a cow, I would give it to UNABU as my way of saying thank you.”

With ongoing financial support and technical assistance from DRF to implement COVID-19-safe advocacy, the coalition expanded its work to dismantle barriers to GBV prevention and response, and to empower women and girls with disabilities to demand justice. As of December 2021, the coalition has:

  • Conducted accessibility audits at 39 IOSCs throughout the country and supported self-assessments at dozens more,
  • Shared key finding shared with relevant stakeholders for further steps to address identified gaps and challenges towards an ideal accessible IOSC for all persons with all types of disabilities,
  • Educated nearly 500 justice and GBV stakeholders including police, judges, investigators, CSOs, advocates, psychologists, local authorities,  doctors, and community support groups (community health workers, friends of families, women and youth representatives) on disability mainstreaming and GBV against girls and women with disabilities,
  • Trained 35 volunteers on basic ICT skills, online safety and security, and use of smartphones for reporting GBV in addition to a basic training package covering disability, disability rights, GBV, and advocacy, and
  • Organized coaching sessions for nearly 10,000 girls and women with disabilities who are members of UNABU’s 56 self-advocacy groups at village levels.

Initial data indicates that these efforts have led to substantially enhanced knowledge and confidence among girls and men with disabilities and  increased access to justice and support services for survivors of GBV. Dozens of new GBV cases have been reported by women and girls with disabilities with the help of UNABU’s community mobilizers.

UNABU Co-Founder and Executive Director Gaudence Mushimiyana stated, “DRF invested in technical assistance, supported UNABU to collect evidence on the issue of GBV against girls and women with disabilities, linked us to new funding and technical assistance opportunities, and gave  us exposure to global events (CRPD Committee, CSW, Global Disability Summit) …These investments have increased our visibility and led to national and international recognition of UNABU as an effective advocacy organization for the rights of girls and women with disabilities.” For our team at DRF, this is a proof point for why consistent and flexible financial and technical support works. With the right investment, UNABU and partners have been able to sustain operations and grow activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring that women and girls with disabilities in Rwanda have a leading voice in addressing barriers and building back better. Seven years after DRF’s first grant, UNABU’s staff has deepened advocacy skills and knowledge while building relationships with government officials and key societal actors. With this work underway, we are hopeful to see the substantive participation and input of organizations of persons with disabilities, especially those led by women with disabilities, into processes related to the development, implementation, and monitoring of new Global Disability Summit commitments by ensuring that these processes are inclusive and accessible.


To read more about UNABU, please visit their Twitter and Facebook.

We would like to thank the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) for generously supporting our GDS grantmaking. You can check out more posts in this series here.

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