Skip to main content
Benedicta Oyedayo Oyewole sits in a chair, looking at the camera.
DJP Fellow Benedicta Oyèdayọ̀ Oyèwọlé describes her primary school as a place of discrimination and fear.


‘You Can’t Legislate Attitudes’

Play audio version

DJP Fellow Benedicta Oyèdayọ̀ Oyèwọlé Talks about the Deterioration of Rights for Queer and Disabled Nigerians

November 14, 2022

ABUJA, Nigeria – In the mid-2000s, when she was a six-year-old girl attending Catholic primary school in West Africa, Benedicta Oyèdayọ̀ Oyèwọlé had one goal in mind: survival. Born with cerebral palsy in the southwestern Nigerian city of Ibadan, one of the country’s most populous areas, Oyèwọlé and her leg braces, the result of numerous surgeries to improve her mobility, were seen as a threat to the health of other children. 

“I had a classmate whose mother came to fight with my teacher for putting her daughter beside a disabled child, like [my condition] was an infectious disease, something she could contract,” says Oyèwọlé. Now a diversity and inclusion expert with the Women’s Health and Equal Rights Initiative (W.H.E.R.) in Abuja, she describes her school as a place of discrimination and fear; her academic performance faltered as she became increasingly disengaged. “I would stay back in my classroom and just cry all through the day,” she says. 

Becoming a Disability Rights Advocate

Two decades later, her childhood experiences have galvanized Oyèwọlé, one of four siblings, into work as a disability rights advocate and current fellow with the Disability Justice Project. In her native Nigeria, access to public spaces and basic healthcare for persons with disabilities remains a pressing social concern. By 2018, nearly 15 percent of an estimated 195 million Nigerian citizens were living with a disability, according to data from the World Health Organization. Additionally, a 2020 report by the World Bank found that the number of persons with disabilities in Nigeria, a group disproportionately prone to poverty and societal exclusion, increased as civil unrest involving armed insurgencies and natural disasters engulfed the region. 

Benedicta Oyedayo Oyewole sits in a chair, looking at the camera.
Oyèwọlé is a diversity and inclusion expert with the Women’s Health and Equal Rights Initiative, where she’s working to meet the needs of queer people with disabilities in Nigeria.

And then there’s the role of religious extremism. Some nights, around three in the morning, Oyèwọlé would carefully climb up one of Ibadan’s nearby mountaintops, which had been converted into prayer spaces, and pray for new legs. There, she would encounter a pastor who laid hands on her to “cast out the demons.” He blamed her disability on witches. 

“Inclusive policies are either nonexistent, weak, or inadequately implemented,” reads the World Bank report. “There is an urgent need to improve the current socioeconomic situation of persons with disabilities in Nigeria.” 

In January 2019, following nearly a decade of sustained efforts by activists, Nigeria enacted a law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability and subsequently established the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities (NCPWD). But according to Oyèwọlé, disability organizations have instigated greater change than anti-discrimination laws, as these laws are not often implemented or enforced. “Some programs have put the burden of equal acceptance on persons with disabilities … while it’s the society’s values that need to be clarified,” says Oyèwọlé. “It’s people’s attitudes that need to be transformed. You can’t legislate attitudes.” 

Navigating Draconian Laws As a Queer, Disabled Woman

Beyond living with a disability, Oyèwọlé’s life is complicated by another aspect of her identity—she is a queer woman. Living as an LGBTQI+ person in Nigeria means cautiously navigating a patchwork of draconian laws; in addition to a nationwide ban on same-sex marriage, ex-president Goodluck Jonathan, in 2014, imposed a 14-year prison sentence for LGBTQI+ people caught in so-called “amorous relationships.” In July, three gay Nigerian men were sentenced to death by stoning, prompting an outcry from the nation’s LGBTQI+ activists. 

Perhaps the most vicious punishment faced by LGBTQI+ people in Nigeria is the practice of corrective rape, where a queer woman is forced into sex with men to “correct” her sexual orientation. This barbaric practice is not unique to Nigeria. A 2022 article in the William & Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice discusses the corrective rape of Black lesbians in South Africa and references similar crimes in Jamaica, India, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, and the United States. 

If I’m looking at where I’m staying and I’m wondering if I’m outed as a queer person or a lesbian woman, I could probably be killed and nobody would be arrested.

Benedicta Oyèdayọ̀ Oyèwọlé

Oyèwọlé says that Nigerian laws oppressing LGBTQI+ persons “empower” members of the public to murder and sexually assault queer women. “If I’m looking at where I’m staying and I’m wondering if I’m outed as a queer person or a lesbian woman, I could probably be killed and nobody would be arrested,” she says. “The reality of queer people in Nigeria is very pathetic and sad.” 

If a woman is outed as queer, she is often shunned by her family and forbidden from furthering her education. In order to rent an apartment, Oyèwọlé has to bring a man as her “boyfriend” to approve. “Coming out as a disabled queer person in Nigeria felt like a joke,” she says, explaining how persons with disabilities are often desexualized by society and rejected by the LGBTQI+ community. 

When asked about the most important work she is doing right now, Oyèwọlé references a year-long project for which her organization “mapped out” queer people with disabilities across all of Nigeria and spoke with this community about their needs. “We are really looking forward to getting funding [for programs] with this specific population … and to explore more intersections,” she says. 

Ryan Di Corpo is a contributing writer with the Disability Justice Project. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, America, Boston College Magazine, Fordham News, and WCVB/Channel 5.

@2022 Disability Justice Project. All rights reserved.

News From the Global Frontlines of Disability Justice

Oluwabukolami Omolara Badmus takes a selfie. In the background is a camera pointed toward a group of people attending a meeting.

‘A View From Somewhere’

DJP staff, partners, and fellows reflect on two years of “taking back the narrative” on disability. “Through the DJP, I was able to advance my advocacy level … for women with disabilities, most especially people with DeafBlindness,” says disability rights activist Oluwabukolami Omolara Badmus, an inaugural DJP fellow from Nigeria.

Read more about ‘A View From Somewhere’

Oyewole holds up her permanent voters card in front of her polling station.

I Voted

DJP Fellow Benedicta Oyèdayọ̀ Oyèwọlé chronicles the challenges she and other Nigerians with disabilities faced voting in her country’s February elections, from faraway polling places to no assistive materials like magnifying glasses. She urges more inclusion in the House of Assembly and gubernatorial elections on March 18.

Read more about I Voted

Illustration of Lidia Lebang and her different identities - writing in a notebook, getting ideas, and advocating for disability rights. In another identity people are pointing fingers at her. Text reads, "More than a name."

More Than A Name

Lidia Lebang, a mental health advocate and author, says she is more than her name: “I am a woman – a gender often seen in Indonesia’s patriarchal society as a second, or inferior, gender. I come from a working-class family. I live with bipolar disorder, which makes me a person with a disability. These are parts of my identity that make me who I am now.”

Read more about More Than A Name

A step stool underneath a bed in a health center in Rwanda.

Toward Equitable Health Care

Rwandans with disabilities face significant barriers to accessing health care. For those with short stature, this includes hospital beds and reception windows that are too high. “Sometimes we are served after others or choose to stay home,” says one advocate for more inclusive services and infrastructure.

Read more about Toward Equitable Health Care

Sri Sukarni sits in a motorbike sidecar, looking at the camera.

‘I Never Imagined I Could Do This’

Dissatisfied by the way local news portrays people with disabilities, DJP Fellow Sri Sukarni is determined to use her new video skills to share issues important to her community. At the top of her agenda is the lack of accessible public service buildings. “This is what I want to convey to the media, to the government,” she says.

Read more about ‘I Never Imagined I Could Do This’

Benedicta Oyedayo Oyewole sits in a chair, looking at the camera.

‘You Can’t Legislate Attitudes’

When DJP Fellow Benedicta Oyèdayọ̀ Oyèwọlé was a child, a pastor laid hands on her to “cast out the demons” and blamed her disability on witches. Today, Oyèwọlé is working as an advocate for Nigerians with disabilities to end discrimination: “It’s people’s attitudes that need to be transformed. You can’t legislate attitudes.” 

Read more about ‘You Can’t Legislate Attitudes’