International Women’s Day

To celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day theme of Women in Leadership, we interviewed Zoénabou Savadogo, Coordinator of our partner organisation Tigoung Nonma

Zoénabou Savadogo is a Burkinabè based in Ouagadougou. She is Tigoung Nonma’s Coordinator, as well as the President of the Association for the Development of Disabled Women (ADFH), and the Treasurer of the National Union of Women with Disability in Burkina Faso (UNAFEHB). 

Zoénabou at a Tigoung Nonma stall in Ouagadougou

International Women’s Day is celebrated annually on 8th March. In Burkina Faso, women celebrate this day by dressing in outfits made from a special women’s day cloth and celebrating together with dancing and feasting. This is also the one day of the year that husbands go to market and buy food to cook a meal for their wives. This year’s theme is Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a COVID-19 World and Zoénabou shared with us her leadership journey and the challenges that prevent more women and girls living with disability in Burkina Faso from accessing leadership positions within their communities. Here is her story.

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Zoénabou Savadogo. I grew up in a polygamous family and I’m the third oldest out of 14 brothers and sisters. I’m physically disabled as a result of contracting polio at 9 months of age.

My father sent me to school in spite of the prejudices of the people in the neighbourhood where I grew up.

I was the first of my brothers and sisters to go to secondary school and to get my Brevet d’Etude du Premier Cycle (BEPC) [similar to GCSE level in the UK]. The year I got my BEPC certificate, my father retired from his job and could no longer provide for all of the family’s needs and I was unable to continue my studies. 

With my BEPC certificate, I tried unsuccessfully to get a civil service job. I then thought about what I could do with my two hands to help my parents to feed, clothe and educate my little brothers and sisters. I learnt to braid hair and would braid the hair of girls in my neighbourhood. I also learned how to weave cloth from my mum and I started to teach other disabled women how to weave and knit. I saved up my money and took a computer course in 2002 and supported [disabled people’s organisation] Handicap Solidaire Burkina as a volunteer secretary.

I am now involved in a number of organisations that support women living with a disability. I am a founding member of Tigoung Nonma, an association and cooperative of artisans living with a disability. Tigoung Nonma in my local language, Mooré, means ‘strength through unity’. Tigoung Nonma was created in 2005 and officially recognised as an association in 2006. It is a cooperative of disabled artisans that creates opportunities for artisans to sell their work, provides training and creates job opportunities for women.

I was hired as Permanent Secretary of Tigoung Nonma from 2006 to 2013, and I was promoted to Coordinator in 2014. Since 2016, I have been doing this role on a voluntary basis as, unfortunately, due to the deteriorating security situation in Burkina Faso and COVID-19, Tigoung Nonma and its artisans are unable to sell their products and the association therefore doesn’t have the means to pay me a salary.

I am also a founding member and President of the Association for the Development of Disabled Women (ADFH), created in 2011, which is a member of the National Union of Women with Disability in Burkina Faso (UNAFEHB). UNAFEHB is an umbrella organisation that defends the rights of women living with disability in Burkina Faso and participates in advocacy at the national level. It is a coordination body that has 65 member organisations, with 45 focal points from every region of Burkina Faso.

Which woman was your role model when you were younger?

When I was younger, my role model was Joséphine Ouédraogo, who was Minister of Family Development and Solidarity under President Thomas Sankara. She is now an Ambassador based in Rome.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is Women in Leadership. What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing women with disabilities in accessing leadership positions in Burkina Faso?

Disabled women in Burkina Faso face a double disadvantage based on being women and being disabled. Girls and women with disabilities face accessibility problems, socio-cultural constraints, lack of interest from families and, above all, extreme poverty, all of which prevent them from fully enjoying their right to access education and training, and subsequently to have a job or activity that would provide them with financial security. 

In the absence of education and financial security, disabled women lack confidence in their own abilities and are unable to assert their rights and needs within their families and communities. 

They also lack opportunities to participate in leadership programmes. For disabled women to access leadership positions, there is also a need for public and private sector actors to recognise the ability and value that disabled women can bring to local and national politics. Disabled women are neither visible nor represented in local decision-making structures.

The current insecurity in the country and the coronavirus pandemic has actually made the situation worse for disabled women. Since 2016, there are fewer tourists visiting and fewer people buying the products made by Tigoung Nonma’s artisans. Many disabled women are scared to leave their households to engage in their artisan activities for fear of being attacked or robbed or of contracting coronavirus. Many of our members, due to their disability, are shielding. This has exacerbated their poverty.

Zoénabou wearing the International Women’s Day pagne (cloth) for 2021

What advice would you give to other disabled women and girls to help them overcome these challenges? 

My advice to my disabled sisters in the world, and particularly in Burkina Faso, would be to:

  • Overcome their fear of the security situation and the coronavirus pandemic;
  • To learn about their rights and duties under the law;
  • To have confidence in their abilities;
  • To lobby the authorities in their local areas to take into consideration their specific needs;
  • To be proactive in seeking information and not always wait to be given information;
  • To participate in local politics.

What will the organisations you work with be reflecting on this International Women’s Day?

At Tigoung Nonma and ADFH, we are reflecting on how to increase the confidence of the women members, as a means to reduce their social and political marginalisation and their low representation in decision-making spheres. We are also reflecting on how to reduce their poverty in the context of national insecurity and fears of COVID-19.

At l’UNAFEHB, we are looking at the health of women and girls living with disability. In collaboration with the National Youth Council, UNAFEHB is organising free screening for cancer of the uterus from 6th to 8th March in Ouagadougou. UNAFEHB is in the process of mobilising its members to take the test.

Another area of reflection is how to have more accurate data on the numbers of women and girls living with disability in Burkina Faso.

What can LAFI Burkina and other organisations do to support disabled women to become leaders in their communities? 

In addition to supporting disabled girls and women to have equal access to education and employment opportunities, they can:

  • Actively support projects that strengthen women’s and girls’ leadership skills and facilitate their participation in politics and decision-making in their communities;
  • Ensure that disabled women are able to participate in women’s movements at the national and international level to ensure that their voices are heard;
  • Publicly recognise the achievements of disabled women leaders through an award in order to encourage other disabled women to get involved in leadership.

To learn more about International Women’s Day, please visit the United Nations International Women’s Day page.