When Odette Juimo contested in the municipal elections of Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé in 2020, she made history. As a blind woman entering the realms of politics at the local level, she re-wrote the rules of political participation for people with disability.
My country, Cameroon, has historically had very few people with disabilities, particularly women, in decision-making positions. Like many other countries, there are multiple barriers to our meaningful participation in politics. Stigma, discrimination, marginalisation, and lack of finances are major challenges. In Cameroon, there are strong cultural norms and beliefs that can lead to people with disabilities not being considered as active citizens, or as having agency. We are often seen instead as victims or as only passive beneficiaries of charity.
In my personal political journey, I have had to overcome myriad systemic challenges to achieve success. I was motivated to enter politics to make the voices of people with disabilities heard because they are under-represented in political parties and absent from decision-making bodies. In my first attempt at Cameroon’s municipal council elections, my application was rejected. There was a prejudice that as a blind person, how could I read administrative documents because I don’t have ‘eyes’? People also tried to discourage me from going out into the community as they said I would not be properly supported to move around. I was hugely disappointed, but I did not give up.
I refined my strategy for the next elections, recruited loyal supporters and persevered. I was also supported by Sightsavers’ Citizenship and Political Participation programme, which works in Cameroon and Senegal to address the lack of representation and participation of people with disabilities in political life. The project empowers people with disabilities to take part in local governance and leadership roles. In my case, it supported me with training, funds for my campaign, and networking with other women leaders and politicians. This was vital because women with disabilities often face multiple layers of discrimination, due to social and patriarchal norms that restrict our access to public spheres.
I fought hard for my place and was finally accepted in the list of candidates of my political party for the municipal elections. We won! Now I continue to work very hard for the Council, as all eyes are on me to see if I can succeed. Society thinks that people with disabilities, especially blind people, can't do anything. I want to show what we are capable of.
When governance systems are not inclusive, such as when people with disabilities are excluded from participating in elections or their participation in the vote is limited, it further exacerbates the problems we face. For example, governments may create public infrastructure that is not accessible to people with disabilities. In my own region, I have noticed that when we build public buildings, despite the presence of accessibility regulations, we don't always consider people with disabilities who may have difficulty walking or using steps.
This is why it has been so great to see the impact of Sightsavers and their local partners’ project in Cameroon. When it began in 2017, there were very few people with disabilities in decision-making positions. The project focused on making voting accessible by working with ELECAM (the electoral organising body in Cameroon) on improving the accessibility of the electoral process, supporting people to have the documents they need to register to vote, changing attitudes, and supporting people with disabilities to run for office.
It has also encouraged more dialogue between decision-making bodies and organisations of people with disabilities. Today, throughout the country, 204 people with disabilities are either elected local councillors, parliamentarians, senators or official representatives in local working groups, including myself. The number of people with disabilities registered to vote has also risen from 8,000 in 2011 to 40,000 in 2022.
For myself and my community, fighting for a seat at the table is certainly exhausting but is made better by allies who believe in us. Although colleagues are delighted with our performance, a tiny minority in the Council seems to remain on the fence. Although the road to equal political rights and social recognition is long, it is always a pleasure for me to work for the advancement of the cause of people with disabilities in Cameroon.
Odette JUIMO is President of the Network of Associations of Women with Disabilities of Cameroon (RAFHCAM), President of the National Solidarity of Blind Women and Friends of Cameroon (SONAFAAC), Municipal Councilor at the City Hall of Yaoundé II, Former member of the board of the World Blind Union (WBU), former vice-president of the African Blind Union (UAFA), former president of the Women's Committee of the African Blind Union, former president of the women's committee sub-region Central Africa.