In June 2018, disability advocate and Sightsavers’ Advocacy Adviser for Social Inclusion, Gertrude Oforiwa Fefoame, was elected to serve on the committee that monitors the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Gertrude attended her first official committee session in Geneva in March 2019 – here, she describes her experience and gives an insight into how the UN system works.
Ahead of my first meeting as a newly-elected CRPD committee member, I was happy that the much anticipated occasion had finally arrived, but anxious about the demands and expectations of the work. Luckily, I had supportive people to share my concerns with. I had a couple of discussions formally with the CRPD Secretariat and with my CRPD Committee Alumni mentor and friend, Silvia Quan. I also had informal meetings with two long-standing friends, Danlami and Samuel, who have been on the committee for some time, and encouragement from family and friends. Rosina, my personal assistant, proved ready for the business, so though there were nerves, there was also some calmness within me.
My role and experience
In addition to the general responsibilities of the committee, my particular role is as a member of the Joint Working Group of the Committee on the Rights of Children and the CRPD Committee.
I worked on childrens’ rights when I was the chairperson of the World Blind Union Committee on Children some years back, and was also an education specialist and an advocate for girls’ rights, so it comes naturally to me from the professional angle. On the committee, I have demonstrated sufficient evidence of interest and knowledge in issues related to women’s empowerment. I have been instrumental in promoting collaboration among female members to try and support each other and to create a safe space to chat. I am also co-rapporteur for a country up for CRPD review.
Because of my many years’ experience working with individuals with disabilities and disability organisations, I was able to bring up the practical challenges faced by people with disabilities, especially in developing countries.
A steep learning curve
I had thought in this first session I would mostly be learning and listening, and build up to contributing, although I knew I would need to be ready to actively participate.
But I’ll admit that when I found my name on a list of members due to ask questions (on the first day of the session), I worried a bit! I shared my anxiety with one of the longer-serving members, Martin Baboo, who explained he would sometimes listen to the presentations and then formulate his questions, and encouraged me to try that. I did, and it worked quite well. So after that point I realised joining in slowly wasn’t an option.
What the meeting involved
The committee’s schedules are characterised by formal meetings, some public and some closed.
There are formal side meetings, and informal discussions booked by representatives of civil society organisations or disability organisations who have learnt about you and want to engage you to support their causes. I met informally with representatives of Human Rights Watch and the Danish Association of the Blind, as well as meeting with Geoff Warne (CEO of the International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations) to discuss leprosy in the context of the CRPD. I also met formally with a number of disability organisations.
The public meeting included the opening and closing sessions, and constructive dialogue with countries who were reporting on their progress on the CRPD, including Cuba, Niger, Norway, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Spain, Turkey and Vanuatu.
As this was the first official meeting after the 2018 committee elections, one of our tasks was to hold a closed meeting during which we elected our committee chair, three vice-chairs and a rapporteur.
On top of this work, I volunteered to represent the committee at an expert group meeting on the intersection of women’s rights and disability rights, held in New York during the Commission on the Status of Women. The meeting, which I joined remotely from Geneva, was hosted by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Catalina Devandas.
With one meeting now concluded, I’m focusing on the work that lies ahead.
There is outstanding work in Africa and Asia: looking at those countries that haven’t yet ratified the CRPD, and supporting disability organisations that are preparing their Alternative Reports. There is also advocacy work needed by disability organisations to engage with and encourage their states to ratify and implement the African Disability Protocol (disability legislation specific to an African context) and the Marrakesh Treaty (which aims to make published works available in accessible formats).
My first meeting was daunting, yet very fulfilling. There is a lot of work to be done, but I am ready and up to it. I am incredibly proud to serve on the Committee and I will continue to work hard towards promoting and protecting the rights of persons with disabilities around the world.