Raghad’s Principal, Najah Hassan Ali Shdeifat, who had been the Principal of Anjara Elementary School for six years

On her own two feet

Despite her disability, one woman stands up to discrimination

Zubeida looks at something off camera

Zubeida has a radiant smile. She’s a petite, cheerful and loving mother and wife.

But to many, she is seen as worthless. When she walks down the street, she is met with mockery and stares. She has been told that her life isn’t worth living, that she would never amount to anything.

“This hurts my heart very, very much,” she says.

Zubeida is one of millions of women with disabilities across India, women who often experience mental and physical abuse. Some are called names or beaten; others are sexually violated.

Zubeida and another woman walk down their street, discussing the challenges disabled people in India face

“People say we can’t do anything,” Zubeida says. “They hit us and call us names.” After years of such treatment, many of these women start to believe the stigma.

She has faced this reality her entire life.

Born with polio, Zubeida has trouble walking and struggles to do tasks that some consider ordinary.

Her condition has drastically altered the trajectory of her life — it’s the reason her family has always treated her differently, why she was forced to drop out of school, why society has cast her aside.

Zubeida walks around her backyard
Zubeida sits in the middle of an empty classroom

Cultural norms haven’t made life easier.

Society not only tells Zubeida that she’s unworthy of kindness, but also expects her to fulfill a “female’s role” in society: cleaning, cooking, shopping, childcare and other household tasks.

Married with two small boys, each morning Zubeida wakes up around dawn to prepare breakfast for her family and get her boys ready for the day. Even the act of bathing her children can cause Zubeida excruciating pain.

Between taking her children to school, going to work at a tailoring shop, walking to the grocery store and preparing meals, Zubeida will have already walked miles, causing pain to her aching legs. Most days, there’s no rest for her weary body. The next day, it starts all over again.

Zubeida walks down a street in her town, which is made difficult due to her polio
Zubeida takes a break from her daily work to play with her two children in her backyard

Women across India face the same hardship every day, struggling to fulfill their societal roles even when impeded by disability.

As Zubeida says, “If I were a man, I would not be treated the same way.”

When someone is told they are worthless, it’s easy for them to lose hope. It’s easy to focus on survival and lose sight of dreams, letting them fade away.

Zubeida gets ready for another day of work
Zubeida talks to workers at a USAID sponsored gender disability resource center
Zubeida leaves the resource center with one of her sons
A side profile of Zubeida talking to workers in the resource center

Zubeida refused to let others define her value.

She refused to give up on the belief that she could do more, that she deserved more.

At USAID, we couldn’t agree more.

Over the past year, USAID has been working to establish the first Indian network of Gender Disability Resource Centers, which provide advocacy and leadership training to women with disabilities.

We’ve helped train service providers, security personnel and counselors to respond to the needs of women with disabilities who experience gender-based violence. In addition, USAID also helps women with disabilities earn an income by teaching them trades like tailoring, incense making and artisanal crafts.

At least once a week, Zubeida visits the Gender Disability Resource Center.

There she has learned about laws that protect her from violence and about her rights.

Through USAID’s programs, Zubeida and hundreds of other women like her learn that the abuse they face is wrong and that they are worthy of respect.

She’s now equipped with the knowledge and resources to view herself as a whole person, despite what others might say.

“This program has helped me understand my rights…the rights of the disabled,” Zubeida says. “There should be no violence against us.”

A sexual harassment and disability awareness poster that helps raise awareness of the rights that people have in India
Zubeida sits down with aid workers to discuss the rights that disabled persons have in India
Zubeida works at a tailoring shop, with a dream to one day become her own boss

Zubeida has been able to transform her own dreams into reality.

She currently works at a tailoring shop but wants to be her own boss.

She says she’ll use her earnings to send her kids to private school and build a house.

Zubeida shares a happy moment with her two sons

With a bright smile, she says,

“I’m standing on my own two feet. I am a woman. I am disabled. I can do anything. That is my right.”

About this story

Millions of women in India who have a disability face physical and sexual violence.

Building on its long history of supporting people with disabilities, in 2014 USAID began partnering with the Shanta Memorial Rehabilitation Center, which works to promote disability rights, disability inclusive development, civil society strengthening and community-based rehabilitation programs in India.

We’ve helped train service providers, security personnel and counselors to respond to the needs of women with disabilities who experience gender-based violence.

Through this partnership, USAID provides rights and advocacy training, income generation support and resources for over 1,000 Indian women with disabilities to ensure they can fully live out their dreams.

Photos and video by Dave Cooper for USAID