A Silver lining: Rani finds her dignity and independence amidst disaster
"I would sit in the window and look at girls going to school every day. They wore these crisp white uniforms and had red ribbon in their hair. I wished to join them but couldn't," says Rani.
Rani, like any other girl, had aspirations and dreams for her future. However, her life took a turn when she was diagnosed with polio at a young age. The attitudinal barriers and the lack of accessible infrastructure made her life increasingly difficult as a woman with a disability.
One of the biggest struggles for Rani has been managing her menstrual hygiene. She didn't have a proper toilet in her home and had to rely on her mother for help during her periods.
"I struggled to maintain basic hygiene, and this took a toll on my health. I felt dirty and unclean, and this impacted my self-esteem and confidence. I was a burden on my family."
Rani, 33, lived with her parents and brother in Chak Patiat, Fazilpur, in the District of Rajanpur in South Punjab. Fazilpur is an ancient town and business centre along the Indus Highway. This was one of the worst-affected areas during the 2022 floods in Pakistan.
Rani and her family were forced to leave their homes and seek shelter in the relief camps. For a woman with a disability, such as Rani, life in the relief camp was even more challenging. Women remained most vulnerable during this time. They had limited access to hygiene products and practised open defecation.
"We had to wait for the sun to go down and then find a safe space to defecate. While others walked, I had to crawl. These were the darkest times of our life," says Rani.
Rani was one of the 600 recipients of commode wheelchair distributed among the persons with disabilities by WaterAid in collaboration with the local partner Society for Special Persons (SSP). SSP is a Persons with Disability led Organization chaired by Ms Zahida, a woman with a disability leader.
"It was my brother who learned about commode wheelchairs by WaterAid and was determined to get one for me. I remember the day when I went with my brother to receive the wheelchair. I was so excited. We all had tea and biscuits in the end," says Rani, laughingly.
Rani and other persons with disabilities received training on using the commode wheelchairs. During the event, important conversations were held on the importance of maintaining good hygiene practices.
For the first time in a long while, Rani felt empowered and in control of her own body. She no longer had to rely on others to help her with her basic hygiene and could maintain menstrual hygiene with ease. This helped to improve her overall health and well-being.
"I feel a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. The commode wheelchair includes a toilet seat and a bucket for easy disposal. I can now manage my hygiene with ease and dignity, without having to worry about leaving my wheelchair or crawling to the washroom," says Rani.
"I no longer have to hold back the call of nature. I used to have frequent infections and bladder issues that have now reduced. It is a good feeling, and it has made my health a lot better."
"Every week we go out now with my brother's family. I also wear the red ribbon in my hair like the girls now. I don't have to stay at home anymore," says Rani, excitedly.
With reasonable accommodations like a commode wheelchair, Rani was able to reclaim her dignity and independence, and this made all the difference in her life.
Despite the positive impact that the commode wheelchair has had on Rani's life, she still faces many challenges as a person with a disability, particularly when it comes to accessing safe and hygienic water and sanitation facilities. In her community, many public toilets are inaccessible and lack basic hygiene amenities, making it difficult for her to maintain her health and dignity.
Rani's story is a reminder that people with disabilities face systemic challenges in accessing basic facilities like sanitation in Pakistan. We must take action to create a world where everyone can live with dignity. Let's work towards inclusive and accessible WASH infrastructure and advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.