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Working to change perceptions among people living with disability

Written by Faith Muiruri
Hanisa Zaja speaks out on her plans to contest for the Mombasa County Representative for people with disability. She expresses her optimism that she will win the seat. Hanisa Zaja speaks out on her plans to contest for the Mombasa County Representative for people with disability. She expresses her optimism that she will win the seat. Picture: Faith Muiruri

 As a young girl she watched helplessly as persons with disability suffered from injustices directed at them by society.

From public health facilities to police stations and learning institutions, persons with disabilities were treated with a lot of disdain.

At the public health facilities, Hanisa Zaja watched as young disabled mothers crawled through the murky and filthy wards after delivery with no attention accorded to their status.

In police stations, the story bordered on hostility and inability by the officers to communicate with those who were deaf. In schools, they had to compete equally with physically able children.

Images of emaciated people with disabilities strewn on the streets stung fiercely under the calm face of reality.

“And this solidified my resolve to crusade for the rights of disabled persons,” explains Zaja who herself is also disabled. To get to work well for the physically challenged, Zaja joined the Association of Disabled Persons in Coast Province and has never looked back.


“At first my peers dismissed the move as ill advised but I remained focused towards ensuring that justice becomes an overriding factor in the society, even for the disabled,” Zaja observes. Today she serves as the chairperson of the Association of Persons living with Disabilities in Coast Province.

Her passion to empower the disabled persons has enabled her to harness the hidden potential among persons living with disabilities and motivate them to achieve with superior results. With the help of development partners, Zaja and members of her association have set up a workshop that deals in tailoring and carving as a way of generating income to help uplift their standards of livelihoods.

“I work with people in need of help to manage their daily lives. The job not only involves helping them identify opportunities around them but also understand and adapt to disability and to obtain social services like health care, government assistance and legal aid,” she explains.

Zaja cites cases where majority, especially women and girls living with disability are raped while the culprits go unpunished due to their inability to identify their assailants.

Her entire life has been inspired by a sense of need to reach out to others in every little way.

“I have been paying school fees for six children with disabilities because I know if they are empowered they can take charge of their lives instead of being beggars,” she says.

Her indisputable level of credibility has helped bring out an incredibly high level of integrity which has earned her the tag “mother-in-law” due to the strong belief in equal opportunities.

Simplicity and humility are the hallmarks that define her work.

Zaja has been identifying people in need and fulfilling those needs. “It is the inner satisfaction that leads me to give more of myself to the people than thinking of what the world thinks of me,” she explains.

“The job needs you to have a big heart. I have been using my own resources to empower the disabled persons. I recently set up a cyber cafe where disabled persons learn new skills on IT free of charge,” says Zaja. She explains: “The cyber is open to other members of the public and the proceeds from the enterprise go into uplifting the livelihoods of the disabled people who use and work in the cyber.”


Zaja also works with the local District Social Development officer to link them with essential resources within the community and protect vulnerable ones by ensuring that their best interests are not ignored.

Her hard work and perseverance has earned her recognition as an ardent defender of the rights of the disabled persons in Coast Province. She has received numerous awards among them the Human Rights Activist for Persons with Disabilities awarded by Muslim for Human Rights (MUHURI) and the Best Woman Achiever by Gulf African Bank in recognition of her efforts to secure bursaries for needy students who are disabled.

Her story is one of determination and at times sheer stubbornness. She has been pushing MPs to support the disabled cause and they have helped in initiating projects that empower the disabled community in Coast Province.


Zaja is seeking nomination for the Mombasa County representative of the disabled. She is optimistic that she will win the seat to enable her initiate more projects that will help transform the livelihoods of persons living with disability.

Among issues she intends to address once elected include education, health, transport sector and also become the voice of the disabled community.

Zaja notes that persons with disability have continued to pay school fees for primary education despite the introduction of the Free Primary Education.

“Majority have been forced to drop out of school as most parents  can hardly afford to keep their disabled children in school,’ she observes. She says that most of the special schools are boarding facilities and, therefore, unless they are fully supported, disabled persons are being denied their right to attain basic education through the free and compulsory education policy initiated by the government.


Further, she says, most health facilities in the county lack physiotherapy clinics that are important for disabled persons. Majority rely on the facility at Port Ritz which also serves Kilifi, Kwale and Taita Taveta counties. Zaja’s plan is to push to have all health facilities equipped with the clinics to guarantee disabled persons easy access.

She notes that the transport sector has not been upgraded to accommodate the needs of the disabled persons who use more money on public transportation.

She says that disabled persons are still being marginalised including in the political process. She cites the ongoing processes across the country to launch political parties where she notes that the disabled have been excluded.

She urges that there be civic education for persons living with disabilities so they can understand the Political Parties Act as well as the Electoral Act.

“Unless accountability is upheld during the nominations by the political parties, persons with disabilities may not realise any meaningful representation,” notes Zaja.

According to Zaja most political parties are likely to nominate their cronies to occupy seats set aside for special groups such as the disabled. “We are not certain that we will get proper representation since individuals who may be handpicked may end up sitting in the county assemblies but fail to address the aspirations of people living with disabilities,” Zaja observes.

She adds: “The nomination should be done at the county level, where people are allowed to choose individuals with the capacity to deliver once nominated to respective positions.”


According to Zaja the new Constitution provides for ministerial appointment for persons with disability in every ministry. This means that more disabled persons will be included in decision making processes and thereby alleviate their suffering.

She proposes that police reforms should embrace the sign language and Braille to effectively provide services to the physically challenged persons.

Zaja, 38, is a mother of two children and married. She went to Port Ritz School for the Physically Handicapped and Mama Ngina Girls’ Secondary School. She has a Diploma in Community Development.

Zaja says that if elected, she will  ensure that every County sets up centres similar to the Bombolulu Training Centre to meaningfully engage disabled persons and promote relationship synergy and consensus between all levels of development to deliver spectacular results.

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