A Finn who has spent much of her life outside of Finland and often working with marginalised groups, Aino Himanen has built a career around promoting inclusion. As the Disability Inclusion Specialist for the community-led water, sanitation and hygiene (COWASH) project in Ethiopia, for the last four years, Aino has been responsible for ensuring that persons with disabilities equally benefit from, participate in and contribute to a project that has brought water to over 4 million people.
“It’s been a huge exercise, but I’m really proud that we’ve brought concrete positive change to so many people’s lives and managed to raise awareness on the issue so widely. When I was starting with COWASH many people from different positions in Finland and Ethiopia told me that it will be impossible … that the WASH sector is very technical and not interested in ‘soft’ issues like disability and that I will not succeed in changing anything. I was also concerned about how I would motivate the rural water engineers in the districts to work on disability issues, for whom it would be an extra duty on top of other things they need to do. In my previous NGO work, it was relatively easy to introduce disability inclusion mainstreaming as we had our own staff on the ground in a small or defined area. Now it had to be done solely through government staff that we had technically no control over and had not selected ourselves.”
A passion sparked
Aino’s interest in disability issues and inclusion stems from her time in Cameroon where she worked briefly on a project for the Finnish Association of Families with Children with Disabilities - Jäätinen ry - as part of her work with another NGO, Interpedia, planning and managing development projects funded by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MFA) and the EU in Nepal, Cameroon, Ethiopia and Kenya.
“Interpedia focused mostly on child rights, education, and children with disabilities. The Cameroon project was planned in a very remote area in the western part of the country. Meeting the high number of families who had children with so many different types of disabilities and no support left a mark on me, and I really wanted to continue working on this issue.”
She had a chance to do this at another NGO, UFF, where she spent four years mainstreaming disability into education, rural development and agriculture projects in India, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola.
“As disability was not an issue that was considered before in MFA-funded UFF projects, it was fairly ground-breaking. Although there is no sector or type of project that does not concern people with disabilities - as they are found in every community - because of the shame and negative attitudes, they often remain hidden at home.”
Why is disability inclusion an important topic in the WASH sector?
WASH is an excellent entry point to include persons with disabilities in a wider sense because once they are given a voice and start contributing, there is a knock-on effect in the community which starts to accept them more. For a long time, disability inclusion has been largely forgotten in the WASH sector. Some NGOs have made inroads, but progress has mainly been in small projects here and there. Nothing has been done systematically on a larger scale – until the COWASH project.
“The need for inclusive WASH and improving the often negative attitudes related to disability, especially in remote rural areas where COWASH operates, is huge. Access to clean water and sanitation is very important for all people, but persons with disabilities often have no access despite needing it more than others. It has been very important to include them and allow independent access so they don’t always have to reply on other people for help,” Aino explains.
“COWASH operates with the community-managed approach where the communities themselves are responsible for the management of the whole rural water scheme, from the tendering of contractors, purchasing of materials and approving the final scheme. All community members contribute in kind, cash or labour to the construction and this brings people together and also allows the community members with disabilities to take part. This has been key in changing attitudes at the community level.”
What does a Disability Inclusion Specialist do?
Aino’s position was a new and unique one as it is the first time MFA has created a full-time post like this in any of its projects. Starting with a blank slate can be very rewarding but also challenging as the now 36-year-old had to devise a strategy of how to do “inclusion” in practice, write comprehensive guidelines and training materials, and conduct trainings with all regional level staff that in turn had to be cascaded to all 5 regions, 25 zones and 76 woreda (districts). In total, COWASH has trained over 16,500 government staff and conducted numerous awareness-raising sessions in communities.
“My job also involves very frequent and extensive visits in the field to support woreda staff and collect best practice stories. On top of this, we have done a lot of work to support the whole WASH sector and bring this issue forward in numerous meetings and workshops at the federal level. For example, COWASH was part of establishing a national Gender Equity and Disability Inclusion Taskforce.
“Mainstreaming disability is a long and never-ending process, but I’m still very happy about the achievements we’ve made. Inclusion has not been ‘just talk’, and concrete changes have happened on the ground. I regularly meet persons with disabilities and other community members who explain how the situation in their village has changed for the better, and I see how proud the district level engineers are to show me the accessible WASH facilities they have constructed or the improvements they have managed to achieve. Woreda-level staff have really taken the disability inclusion issue to heart, and I think this is the key to our success. They’ve been motivated by trainings where persons with disabilities have shared their own stories and experiences.”
Aino knows there are still many things to be done both in WASH and communities more generally to include persons with disabilities, but it’s a promising start.
And for this NIRAS employee, that’s already a great achievement.
To learn more about how COWASH is mainstreaming disability issues and the affect this is having on the communities and the lives of people with disabilities, click here.