Talking through Art: Empowering women living with disability

Regardless of their disability, the women strive to be self-reliant. / Courtesy photo

When Jeanne Mukankuranga was 27 years old, an awful car accident sent her entire life in turmoil. She lost her right arm, and accepting this fate was hard. Amidst this struggle, her husband and the father of her three children left her, saying he didn’t want her for a wife anymore.

With only one arm, she resorted to hawking clothes in Nyabugogo to make ends meet, but the setbacks of being a single mother and living with disability went on to become her daily challenge.

Mukankuranga has suffered low self-esteem; she has suffered a broken heart and a broken home.

Friends and family abandoned her for they saw her as a burden, she says, yet with all of this, she also had to deal with stigma from society.

Women say they have had their lives transformed through the initiative. Courtesy photo

“I always cover myself a lot, I have to dress up like a Muslim because it’s like I am a problem everywhere I go. People stare and it’s so uncomfortable,” she says.

She says that even finding a house to live in has been a problem, for when people notice that she is missing an arm, they think that she won’t be able to work and pay for it.

“At times I have to send someone, or go there when I have covered my body, so that they can’t tell that I don’t have an arm. We face so many challenges but stigma has always been too much to handle,” the 45-year-old narrates.

Josee Uwimana shares similar concerns. The 35-year-old was born with no legs and her entire life, she has relied on prosthetic limbs to facilitate her mobility.

The organisation buys the final products from the women as a way of helping them earn a living.

When she was pregnant with her now seven-year-old, she became the talk of town. Many wondered if a woman with such a disability could actually give birth.

“They disregard us as human beings. This is the biggest problem, when they say that, it makes me feel less of a human. If they can give birth, what makes them think that I can’t give birth? Such words make you feel like an outcast,” Uwimana says.

As a child, she always heard people talk about her, saying that she would have been a very beautiful child if only she didn’t have a disability.

These words have haunted her life, they have made her question herself — if she was enough, or if things would be better for her if she had legs.

Uwimana has learnt to be comfortable in her own skin, however, she still faces some trials, for example, buying prosthetic limbs is still a challenge.

Some of the products made by the women of the organisation. Basket weaving has improved the women’s livelihoods. Courtesy  photos

“Wearing prosthetic legs is not that painful because I was born like this, this is the life I know. However, I find it difficult wearing them when they start getting old, moving with them becomes hard for they start hurting me. I have to bear with the pain until I find a new pair,” she says.

Both of these women have had to endure challenges of living life with disability. They are part of an organisation that has facilitated them in overcoming some of these challenges.

The organisation ‘Talking through Art’ is focused on creating art-related employment opportunities for people (women mainly) with disabilities. This is done through traditional basket weaving and craft-making.

The organisation buys the final products from the women; this is done as a way to help them earn a living.

Uwimana says before she joined this organisation, she was jobless and getting what to eat or other necessities wasn’t easy.

She, however, says this has changed because she can now pay her rent and take care of her child as well. She even has dreams of starting up her own business. She wants to venture into tailoring because she has the skills.

Mukankuranga says for people with disability, the best thing they can ever have is self-reliance. This is why she is thankful that through art craft, she is managing to make a living off her own struggle.

“It’s hard being dependant, that’s why one has to work hard because if you go to ask for something from a neighbour, they think that it is because you are disabled and even tomorrow you will come back,” she says.

Asked about how she has managed to survive challenges, she says it’s all about willpower and prayer because someone living with a disability encounters many trials.

“I think God allows some things to happen for a reason, but I always pray that people living with disability find it possible to be self-reliant because if you have to depend on others, it can be twice as hard,” Mukankuranga says.

Changing the narrative

Jean Chance d’amour Habimana, finance and administration officer at Talking through Art, says being disabled and being a woman is being ‘double vulnerable’.

He has seen the struggles these women go through and he believes that it is upon society to give them a shot at an easier life.

Some of these women were living on the streets, others were beggars, and some who were persistent, survived on small jobs like selling fruits on the road.

But through this initiative, lives of over 80 women have been transformed; they can now feed and clothe their children, pay rent, pay for medical insurance, among other feats.

So far, women in Muhanga, Kigali and Rwamagana can access these services, but Habimana says they have plans to expand to other areas so as to reach out to other women living with disabilities in Rwanda.

He emphasises that it is important to leave the government out of this and let the support start within families.

“Let’s give them a chance to go to school, be there for them. Being disabled is not a curse, as some used to believe, nor is it being useless, these people have abilities. I know laws supporting them are there but let’s put it into practice,” he says.

“There is that stigma to get a job, whether one is educated or not, it is hard. But let’s give disabled people a chance, for example, if you are an employer, say among the five people you want to employ, have two who are disabled. I am glad the government is doing its best to help, for example, there is improvement in infrastructure though more needs to be done,” Habimana says.

The organisation also has other extra activities like a yoga class held every Wednesday, a daily English class, and has also recently started paying school fees for the children of its members.

They also avail family planning services and other life skill classes, all in an effort to build confidence of their members, strengthen their self-esteem, and help them become independent and active participants in society.

What can be done to address the challenges faced by women living with disability?

There has to be a particular system put in place to address issues of sexual violence. Many have suffered cases of rape but because they fear to speak out, such cases go unreported, this needs to be addressed.

Scovia Karungi, Parent


Both government and private institutions should endeavour to have policies that seek to employ women, especially those with disability. This will help address the problem of unemployment.

Lovence Mutoni, Pharmacist


Society together with the government should fight for inclusion of people with disability. This will reduce on cases of discrimination, violence and even stigma.

Jamil Sentamu, Businessman


I think it is better to facilitate them with access to education and affordable healthcare. This will help them be self-reliant and will also enable them access certain equipment, like wheel chairs.

Wilbur Bushara, Medic

editor@newtimesrwanda.com