Q&A: 20 years of disability advocacy in Vanuatu

Nelly Caleb, national coordinator for the Vanuatu Disability Promotion and Advocacy Association. Photo by: CBM Australia

CANBERRA — Building the capacity of people living with disability in low- and middle-income countries — particularly women and girls — requires strong advocates to build the next generation of disability leaders.

Nallie Caleb, national coordinator for the Vanuatu Disability Promotion and Advocacy Association, is one of these advocates. Caleb has built her career supporting people with disability, like herself, to overcome the challenges she has faced as part of everyday life in Vanuatu. And she is seeing important changes in women and girls being willing to have their voices heard with the support of VDPA.

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“We are continuing to build the capacity of women and girls with disability through promoting disability inclusiveness at the national level, and also building the capacity of women with disability at the grassroots with training and support,” Caleb told Devex.

But there is still much more work to be done to break down barriers within communities, particularly in remote areas of Vanuatu, Caleb said.

The bi-annual general meeting of the Vanuatu Disability Promotion and Advocacy Association, taking place this month, will be more than an opportunity to discuss progress and priorities of the work to advocate for people with disability in Vanuatu. It will also be an opportunity to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the organization that was founded in 1999 — including recognition of members old and new who have championed disability rights for citizens of Vanuatu.

In the lead up to these celebrations, Caleb discussed with Devex the work to date for people with disability in Vanuatu and plans for the future.

In your work in advocating for and supporting women and girls with disabilities, what is the greatest impact you have made?

… In 2002 when you spoke to women with a disability, [they] would be shy and would just smile. But now there are young girls coming up that talk to you and give their thoughts — it’s different than before.

As an organization, we have seen a lot of women with disability participating in training, and at meetings we can then see them speaking up. A generation of women are being empowered. They’ll be leaders.

But we know there is a lot more to be done. There are so many barriers in society to women and girls with disabilities in particular. People think they have different rights or they are seen as women who are good for nothing and can be treated badly and … are still being excluded from humanitarian responses.

We know that when there is an evacuation, there is always some abuse taking place. Women with disabilities face multiple discrimination at times like this. When we deliver training to women and girls, we always tell them they have the same rights as everyone else and should be treated with respect and dignity.

What are the barriers that still exist?

One of the barriers is information and communication. We don’t have a braille school on Vanuatu, we don’t have a national sign language and children with disabilities don’t go to school — unless their parents and the school are very supportive. There are often kept at home and this creates even more barriers, as they can’t even read a text message on the phone warning them of an emergency.

The 2017 evacuation for the volcanic eruption at Ambae, showed the barriers that women with disabilities face in an emergency — they may have never traveled before but they are forced to because it’s a state of emergency. And they were instructed to leave their wheelchairs behind because there was no space.

Findings from this response were very important to identify what these challenges were. There is positive action coming out — before women with disabilities were never included in rapid assessments or the assessment team, but now we are included.

Even the last mass evacuation, we were one of the organizations supporting gender protection. We are combined with the gender protection health cluster in Santo where we support the registration of vulnerable groups, make sure the rights and needs of these people are met, and make sure they have their devices.

If they leave the islands, those who cannot walk just crawl on the ground because of lack of services.

So we have seen improvement — but we and our partners can do more as well and the government has acknowledged and committed to so more in their CRPD [Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities] report last year. In the concluding remarks we have received from the UNCRPD, they are inviting us along and the government are involving us — they want to do better.

What is your role in keeping the government accountable?

We always advocate for article 4.3 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which is “nothing about us without us” to make sure that they are including us.

In the implementation of U.N. recommendations, we are advocating for monitoring of action and we had our first meeting of the National Disability Committee in July to monitor the implementation of the CRPD. They are making sure we are actively involved in this process.

We have funds from the DRF [Disability Rights Fund] to make sure we can go to different line ministries and discuss support for the implementation.

What do you think the achievements you have made over the past 20 years will mean for the life of a girl born today in Vanuatu with a disability? And what challenges will remain?

The challenge will be the physical environment — currently in regional centres they are using classrooms and other inaccessible locations for evacuations. There is still more to do and we have to build awareness, but otherwise small girls who grow up may see stigma reduced — not like before in my day.

With an organization like ours, we are partly funded by the Pacific Disability Forum, but we are advocating for the government to co-fund us so we can do more in the rural communities. We can see the changes in the urban settings but in going to the rural area we need to do more.

But I believe 100% we are building strong leaders in the future. This generation of women [who] are being empowered through our work will be leaders, and they can continue to break down barriers.

Who has inspired you to continue breaking down barriers for women and girls with disability?

One of our chiefs in Santo has really inspired me — he supports women and when we were suggesting putting women to contest municipality elections he was very supportive — and encouraged other men to join in that support.

But also my husband. He is very inspiring in talking about gender balance — maybe he has to because he’s my husband. In our community, he changes the mindset of people and family members — including his brothers — on gender roles. He’ll cook dinners, fold clothes for the family. It is really good to see the change it makes.

What message do you have for the international development community on how they can continue to help progress your work and consider the diverse needs of all people in an emergency?

For the messaging, we need meaningful participation of women with disability — and this means not having them warming the seats.

We also need to make sure [we promote] inclusiveness, and ‘leave no one behind’ can only stay true if we put actions to our words.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.