Activism from a wheelchair - An interview with a Tajik defender of the rights of women with disabilitiesPublished: Dec 17, 2020 Reading time: 7 minutes
As a child, Sitora Kurbonova contracted polio, leading to paralysis. Dependent on her wheelchair, she personally knows all too well the difficulties women with disabilities are facing and has dedicated herself to helping them realize their potential and to emancipate. She studied psychology and now leads a Tajik organization working to expand the rights of women with disabilities. “The most difficult thing is to change the mindset of girls and women with disabilities, for them to become active and self-reliant. Unfortunately, a life of dependency narrows your understanding of the world and its possibilities.”
How did you become a human rights activist? Was there a specific moment or impulse which motivated you?
It started almost 20 years ago. I had a studio of my own then and during my breaks from work I would watch the people passing by my window. When I saw children or young women with disabilities I could not help wondering what would become of them in the future. Would somebody in their families be able to teach them how to be self-reliant? Will they be able to choose their profession? And so on. Eventually I opened free-of-charge courses in cutting and sewing for young girls with physical disabilities. And that was the origin of our organization.
What are the main challenges women with disabilities face in Tajikistan?
The problems women with disabilities face are interconnected. A more accessible environment would help open up opportunities for education, employment, and the financial independence of women with disabilities, and their inclusion in public life.
What kind of difficulties do you come up against in supporting or helping women in need?
The most difficult thing is to change the mindset of girls and women with disabilities, for them to become active and self-reliant. Unfortunately, a life of dependency narrows your understanding of the world and its possibilities.
What can local and international organizations do to support sustainable work with local women with disabilities?
The best way to support the sustainability and long-term effect of the results of our work is to implement projects which include training in skills for running small businesses, contribute to the improvement of the financial situation of women with disabilities, and provide training for self-reliance. These factors can move our target group out of the vicious circle of discrimination: woman – with disability – unable to find work – poverty – violence against women. For example, when a woman gains self-esteem, confidence in herself and her abilities, when she starts to have goals in life, when she works out her own plan of action to attain these goals and then achieves them, from a vulnerable person she gains control over her own life.
As for NGOs, it is essential for them to remain active and to promote their goals, the aims for which they were constituted. It is like the circulation of the blood which helps the whole body become healthy. And for human rights activists it is very important to know that you will get support in a difficult situation, that your work is indeed important and necessary.
In the past – correct me if I’m wrong – you were also waiting for help for quite some time…
That’s true. In the past, I would approach various foundations and organizations supporting human rights activists about a grant for the purchase of an electric wheelchair, since it was difficult to cope with my old wheelchair. And unfortunately I would be refused – they would say that it was a huge amount of money (and indeed it is a very large sum), but even more frequently I would hear that the lack of this essential aid was not a critical situation and did not constitute a threat to my life. But while it is not a threat to life, it can kill your your drive, your activities, and their results. It was at this point that the IPHR organization came up with the idea of organizing a fundraising campaign to raise the necessary sum from different organizations that advocate human rights.
My example shows how several organizations – People in Need, IPHR, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Frontline Defenders, the Polish Helsinki Committee – were able to combine efforts within a short space of time. They enjoy excellent communication with the beneficiaries and can act jointly very quickly. And so – Hooray! – on September 4th my electric wheelchair arrived. I am overjoyed that it worked out and would like to use this opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to the staff of these organizations for their contributions and efforts in acquiring this help for me.
Is there something you would like to achieve in the future?
In the future I would like to work in international structures as an expert on the adaptation of the environment for people with limited mobility, and of course I want to pursue issues of supporting women. At present I am taking part in a training programme, learning the skills to make short videos about social issues, success stories, etc. I think these skills will be very useful in terms of my future plans.
I have heard that thanks to you, two hotels have become accessible to people with disabilities. Please, tell us more about it.
They are not hotels (laugh). The first case was a sanatorium, the second a local authority.
On our request, in 2017, the health resort Bahoriston, where we hold our annual School of Leadership, Self-Esteem and Business Planning, introduced two access ramps, one at the entrance to the accommodation facility and the other at the entrance to the conference room.
In 2018, as part of the joint project of organizaitons of people with disabilities, a motor rally was held in support of the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an event that was held in a number of cities and regions across Tajikisatan. As a result of the rally, in November 2018 the executive authority of the city of Kanibadam built a ramp according to our designs. And now everyone uses it, whether they have disabilities or not.
What would you pursue if you were not a defender of rights of women with disabilities?
I am an environmentalist at heart! What I would like to see in our country is for us to have a system of waste separation and recycling. When I go shopping I always bring my own bag so as to not need to use plastic bags. I also work with an animal shelter, for which we raise money for food and medical treatment, as well as looking for new homes for them.
You are known as a cheerful, strong, active and courageous person. What helps you to stay motivated and keep up your spirits? What cheers you up?
That’s a difficult question. I don’t think of myself as particularly strong. I struggle with effective time management. I’m not a morning person and that is a major source of stress (laugh). I get easily excited and can be diverted by something interesting. I take disappointment very hard, which means that I tend to have very high expectations of others (laugh).
My motivation gets a boost when after a lot of effort, one of our beneficiaries goes to study at university, or opens their own beauty parlour, or gets married, has a child… There is no better motivation than to see the results of your work.
What were your dreams when you were young?
Oh dear! As a child my dream was to have eighteen cats living in our house (laugh). I don’t know why eighteen in particular.
What would be your message to the readers of our interview?
Dear reader! If you want a pet, please take one from a shelter! That would be so cool (laugh).