We are soon closing the year 2016, a year filled with changes, new issues and hard work. All major changes started already in autumn 2015 when the government of Finland decided to cut development aid funding drastically. The cut hit Abilis, among other NGOs and development aid agencies. The news was shocking, even though everybody knew the financial constraints of Finland and unfavourable attitudes towards development aid. Unprepared for such cuts, the NGO’s, Abilis included, realizing just how dependent they had been on government support, now found their very existence threatened and their future in the balance.
After the shock, the Abilis team took action. Plans were made on how to save money and run activities with less financial resources. Models and strategies were prepared for phasing out from several countries. Less project funding decisions were made with less human resources. The situation further emphasized the urgency to find new donors and funding sources to secure the genuine Abilis work. Search for ideas to generate own income was launched and measures were taken to renew the website and other publications. Active use of the Social Media was underlined. Planning for the future was started with a critical evaluation regarding present working methods in order to obtain better results in projects and all activities of Abilis Foundation.
Signs of renewed faith in the future have been visible during the past months. Many cooperation partners have shown interest in a tighter collaboration. Abilis has found new contacts and partners, too. Shared interests provide possibilities of collaborating and aiming at tangible and sustainable changes in societies and attitudes towards disability, but particularly in the lives of persons with disabilities. The unique Abilis approach, which Abilis has been implementing since its establishment in 1998, to support Disabled People’s Organizations in their work to actively improve their own societies, has been found interesting. Some agencies are interested in buying the expertise of Abilis to build their own capacity. The wide network and the work of the Disability Movement is something special that not so many have. Based on these great lessons, we should be proud of Abilis and its network – Abilis makes many things possible today and is intent on doing that also in the future to ensure that the voice of persons with disabilities can be heard and the general attitude changed to a more inclusive one.
There have been many committed actors in this heavy work, the Board members, office staff, representatives and partners of Abilis in the named focus countries, to mention a few. Each and everyone has done their very best, carrying out their tasks in a professional way and closing ranks in face of the crisis.
Friends, you all and your efforts are highly needed in the future. Abilis needs expertise, commitment, the power of working together. Abilis needs new donors and a wide funding foundation to secure the financial resources for project funding in developing countries. Let us continue working together – together, we are more!
On behalf of Abilis Foundation,
Have a Wonderful Christmas and a Successful Year 2017!
Marjo Heinonen, Executive Director
As a slave in your own family
There are over 500 million girls and women with disabilities in the world, in other words, 18 % of its entire female population. Discrimination and human rights violations are part of their daily lot in life. Because of their disability, they are deemed incapable of being mothers and wives. More often than not, they are forced to undergo abortions and sterilisation, they are being exploited sexually and have no access to healthcare and social services. The discrimination is systematic and takes place at home as well as in society at large. It is still not unusual for family members with disabilities to be kept hidden at home for years with no social contact. The situation of girls and women with disabilities in developing countries is bleak.
Heavy household work is part of the everyday life of women in developing countries. It is their duty to tend to agricultural tasks, to gather firewood, take care of children, to cook and to serve men. “It’s hard to imagine the multiple discrimination girls and women with disabilities have to endure because of both their gender and their disability. They hardly ever get to go to school, for one”, says Abilis project coordinator Tuula Heima-Tirkkonen. “ One must bear in mind that in developing countries where every fifth person has a disability, there is a surprising number of negative beliefs and attitudes attached to it”, she adds.
In Tanzania, Albinos have always been feared, just touching them triggers a curse according to local people. Attitudes and beliefs are so tightly embedded in people’s minds that even persons with albinism themselves take the story to be true and believe they actually bring bad luck. Clearly, more awareness-raising work is required. Albinos often suffer from visual impairments and blindness is a common enough outcome. Also, their fair skin needs to be particularly well protected against sunshine.
Through its activities, Abilis has contributed to empower and improve the quality of life of women with disabilities in the Global South. Different income-generating projects providing vocational training have been instrumental in boosting the self-confidence of these women – they can actually earn money themselves! Moreover, trainings related to sexuality and the understanding of one’s own rights have been of primordial importance. Women with disabilities too have the right to found a family – as well as to refuse having numerous children. Furthermore, training women with disabilities in sign language and braille has been a top priority.
Thanks to sign language the deaf can express themselves and share their thoughts. For them, learning sign language is a lot easier than learning to speak, considering that in developing countries hearing aids and cochlear implants are practically unheard of and hardly ever available.
Development cooperation by and on the terms of the persons with disabilities has brought positive results: their living conditions and opportunities for participation have improved significantly in many developing countries; however, a great deal of powerful awareness-raising is still required. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities provides an excellent platform for improving the position and enforcing the human rights of women with disabilities. Article 6 of the Convention enjoins the society and its actors to ensure the full development and empowerment of women with disabilities in order to guarantee them the exercise and enjoyment of their human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with other citizens. Article 25, on the other hand, specifies how to organize healthcare services in such a way that people with disabilities, children, girls and women included, are not discriminated. The convention is an important tool for persons with disabilities aspiring to improve their position in their own society.
Arto Vilmi (62) is a visually impaired, independent man who has worked for six and a half years as project coordinator for Abilis Foundation. He is a true polyglot who knows more languages than anybody else at Abilis:” oh, four or five fluently,” he modestly admits. At the end of the year he is to retire with mixed feelings.
Drastic cuts will be made to Finland’s Development Aid budget, affecting also Abilis’ activities and resulting in staff cuts. “ Even if I would have loved to stay on, this might be the best solution for me in the end – one can’t have everything,” Arto replies when asked how he feels about retiring. “I’ve really enjoyed working for Abilis, the job is worthwhile, taxing and gratifying at the same time, even dynamic, never mind it mostly consists of long hours of solitary toil,” Arto muses. Two other employees share his workspace, Slade from Zambia and Nathaly from Colombia. A constant clicking of keyboards can be heard from their office.
Partially sighted from birth, Arto’s field of vision is very fragmented: he can only see in patches with his right eye. The left one is completely useless. Arto doesn’t know Braille, however, but reads aggrandized text on his computer and in publications and uses a magnifying glass when needed. In his spare time, he likes to read the Science, a review he has subscribed to for over 30 years. All articles on nature are of particular interest to him. He occasionally visits the library in Kallio, an area of Helsinki he has lived in for eight years.
Nowadays, he lives by the seashore, in Arabia, a part of town that suits him well. The Arabia mall is handy since it’s not too big and the tram number 6 takes him to his office (in Sörnäinen) in 15 minutes. Sometimes it’s difficult for him to distinguish the tram number 6 from the 7B on the stop, especially with the sun in his eyes, luckily there is always a fellow passenger who can help.
Of the six Abilis field visits he has made, the one in 2011 to both Uganda and Burundi with his colleague Tuula Heima-Tirkkonen, has left a particularly fond memory. In the French-speaking Burundi Arto was in his own linguistic element, all I had to do was to listen to his fluent interpretation. The trip went altogether very nicely,” Tuula reminisces.
Arto has been in charge of Uganda, Mozambique, French-speaking Africa (Congo) and of Latin America (Peru). Being a project coordinator can be tricky at times, especially when, often enough, the support we need from facilitators isn’t forthcoming, and we have to do their work, too,” says Arto and adds in one breath, “It’s not a generality at Abilis, though, there are numerous countries where cooperation runs smoothly and where there is no reason to change a system that works.” Furthermore, “ Thanks to my visual impairment, I find handwritten applications particularly taxing, as if the facilitators couldn’t type them on computer,” Arto sighs. Monitoring visits have gone really well, the local hosts have been very helpful in getting him from the car to the project site, for instance. “There simply isn’t enough work for a personal guide on a field visit and it’s very expensive to have one,” replies Arto when asked whether he is accompanied by a personal assistant on these travels. He has a pacemaker since 1½ years and feels great nowadays. Cardiac insufficiency has multiple repercussions,” explains Arto.
Long flights aren’t tiring, it’s a question of having the right attitude. Arto tries to sleep most of the time. Eating on the plane is challenging, he laughs, visibly amused by the scanty space in which even people with normal sight have problems… “I’d like to travel, perhaps to Italy. It might be feasible once I’m retired,” Arto tells. “I’ll also start taking more exercise since I’ll have more time on my hands. I enjoy being alone and never feel lonely,” he adds and grins: “And I’d really like doing voluntary work for Abilis every now and then”.