A woman like my friend Primrose Mandishona would usually be voiceless and invisible.
Her gender, her rural location and her physical impairment would often mean exclusion from any sphere of decision-making and leadership. But Primrose didn’t accept that fate. She’s become increasingly visible in our home country Zimbabwe, and this week she’ll become visible to the world as she participates in the Global Disability Summit in London (24 July 2018).
I couldn’t be more proud that my CAMA sister will stand before an audience of world leaders, influencers and policy-makers to tell her story, and show that living with a disability won’t stop her from doing anything. She’s also coming to galvanize fresh action; as a passionate disability activist and campaigner, Primrose wants to see children with disabilities be given access to quality education, and supported to live independent, fulfilled adult lives.
These are career paths that no woman from our communities had ever had the chance to pursue.
Primrose just arrived in London from Harare today. It’s her first time in the UK, and she headed straight from Heathrow Airport to the Global Disability Summit. Photo: Hermione Wace/CAMFED
Education has been vital in Primrose’s journey, as it has been in mine. We both come from poor, rural households in Zimbabwe. When money and food were scarce, there was no chance of our families covering our secondary school fees, buying uniforms and exercise books. Just as we were losing hope, we encountered the Campaign for Female Education, CAMFED, an international NGO founded simultaneously in Cambridge, UK and Harare, Zimbabwe. CAMFED stepped in to support us in secondary education. I went on to qualify as a lawyer and Primrose is now a practising rehabilitation technician. These are career paths that no woman from our communities had ever had the chance to pursue.
Disability activist and rehabilitation technician Primrose Mandishona at work. She uses her own story and scars to motivate the young people she works with. Photo: Mark Read/CAMFED
But perhaps the moment which has shaped our lives the most was the day we came together with the first 400 girls supported by CAMFED, in Harare, Zimbabwe. We made a commitment that as a sisterhood we’d support each other to overcome the challenges and discrimination we still faced, and pave the way for the next generation. And so on 2 July 1998 the CAMFED Association, CAMA, was born. We’ve just celebrated our 20th anniversary, and we now number 120,000 educated young women, ready to lead the charge!
A photo from 2001 which I remembered as I re-read this blog; Primrose (front row, left) and me (front row, right) with other members of the CAMFED alumnae network (CAMA)
We’ve seen women’s movements in the US, UK and elsewhere, and we’ve called #TimesUp in our own way.
As CAMA members we have been true to the promises we made, and we’re still gaining momentum as we grow, learn and change. By the end of 2017 we had already supported 784,477 children to go to school using our own resources. And though girls’ education and young women’s empowerment are a priority for us, we reach out to every marginalized group in our communities, from the elderly to those living with disabilities.
We’ve seen women’s movements in the US, UK and elsewhere, and we’ve called #TimesUp in our own way. We share some of those values and frustrations. But we’re starting at the other end. There are no red carpets or paparazzi here (though we do have some beautiful dresses!). We’re trying to give a voice to women who are completely voiceless, silenced by their poverty, their rural isolation and by other factors like living with a disability.
Women want to see inclusion movements that are themselves more inclusive
Our sisterhood for change. Primrose (third from the right) with CAMA leaders Edith, Munyaradzi, Susan, Melody and Winnie (left to right). Photo: Angeline Murimirwa
I’ve been interested to read articles in the UK newspapers recently about how it is not just in Africa that women want to see inclusion movements that are themselves more inclusive. To make everyone welcome and heard, regardless of age, race or disability. Writing in The Guardian, paralympic athlete Anne Wafula Strike laments the lack of disabled female role models and of representation in the media. And in the Financial Times, Niamh Ní Hoireabhaird observes that living with a disability in the UK (like Zimbabwe) she can expect a higher cost of living and healthcare, as well as exclusion from education and employment.
Primrose advocates for inclusive education and employment opportunities for all those living with a disability. She spoke at Zimbabwe’s first Disability Summit in April 2018.
It is time for a shift. And I hope that hearing Primrose speak at the Disability Summit in London will be an inspiration to many. She has certainly been an inspiration to CAMA. She’ll tell her audience that young women like her are a valuable asset, and she’s right.
As women we know what it’s like to be left out, left behind. So let’s not condemn other groups to a life on the margins. Let’s come together and strive for the social, economic and political inclusion of everyone.
Because all around us are young people like Primrose, who’s futures we can unlock and who will grow up to change the world.
Read Primrose’s personal story.
Read Primrose’s blog “Growing up with a disability did not stop me becoming who I am today”
Fiona and Primrose have known each other for 20 years. Both are founding members of CAMFED’s CAMA alumnae network. The power of CAMA members lies in their lived experience of the barriers to girls’ education, and their philanthropy and activism, as they work with their communities to dismantle these barriers and ensure every child is educated, protected, respected and valued, and grows up to turn the tide of poverty. If you believe in what young women like Primrose are doing, get involved at www.camfed.org.