Fighting for the unheard

On the BBC list of 100 most inspiring and influential women — who are hitting “reset” and reinventing society, culture, and the world

Fighting for the unheard

Aside from the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai and Afghan activist Laila Haidari, there is also the Pakistani disability activist Abia Akram on the list.

“To reset the world after the Covid-19 pandemic, we must act jointly to improve all aspects of our societies on which the ‘new normal’ will be built. We should see far more inclusive development as a result,” the British news outlet quoted her as saying.

As a student managing her own disability back in 1997, Akram began the Special Talent Exchange Program (STEP). Her reputation as a shining hope for people with disabilities is well known. In addition to her two master’s degrees, the 36-year-old is also a strong advocate of education as a catalyst in a world where people with disabilities are often overlooked. Her work includes incorporating disability into the UN 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals.

Being the first Pakistani female with a disability to be awarded the highly prized UK government Chevening Scholarship, Akram has pushed for change, altering outdated notions of disability. Among her many accolades, she is also the first woman from Pakistan to be nominated as coordinator for the Commonwealth Young Disabled People’s Forum. The disability activist founded the National Forum of Women with Disabilities, which campaigns for the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Inclusive Development.

Besides advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities, Akram works with policymakers in the public, private, and development sectors to include persons with disabilities in the processes. The 36-year-old conducts consultations to promote an accessible environment for persons with disabilities to gain access to health, education, and livelihood information.

Her accomplishments are truly remarkable for someone so young. Having an education and the support of her family from a young age empowered Akram to reach goals that most believed impossible. The idea that someone, especially a girl, with a disability could be sent to school was once unthinkable. In order for Akram to have a mainstream education, her parents sent her to school. Her efforts paid off as she graduated with the highest honours and went on to earn two master’s degrees.

Having chosen training and empowerment of women and girls with disabilities as her life’s mission, Akram has committed herself to the cause. As someone who firmly believed that women and girls with disabilities need leadership training and opportunities, Akram decided to follow this path. With the support of her family, Akram founded the National Forum of Women with Disabilities in Pakistan in 1997 to educate women with disabilities about how to assert their rights. Her contributions to the disability rights movement have now been recognised not only nationally but also internationally.

Fear of disability is ingrained in many of us from a young age. Despite widespread awareness, being disabled continues to be seen by many around the globe as abnormal. The constant stares and pitying expressions from people can demoralise someone who has already struggled for long. The disabled are constantly treated as though they are a burden. They are often denied basic rights – stigmatised and marginalised in society. This is particularly true of women and girls.

Having been born with rickets, Akram cannot walk or move without a wheelchair. Her experiences as a ‘disabled’ person have heightened her understanding of the trials and struggles a disabled person goes through. The empowerment of women is a complex, cross-cutting issue; the initiative Akram is working on to encourage joint initiatives for the economic and social empowerment of women in general and women with disabilities is timely and needed.

The writer is a freelance contributor

Fighting for the unheard