We took the opportunity of the GEAR conference, to gather the perspectives of some of the most representative women, active within EBU and other organisations, who have greatly contributed to further the rights of blind and partially sighted persons in Europe and beyond. Each in their own ways are role models and pave the way for a more inclusive, empowered and balanced society. Interviews conducted and compiled by Valerie VIVANCOS, Observer on behalf of the EBU OFFICE.


Picture shows (from left to right) Kiki Nordstrom, Maria Kyriacou, Barbara Martín Muñoz, Maria Thorstensson and Birgitta Blokland.

Description: All are seated at a table, Kikki is wearing a black dress with a red shawl, Maria is wearing a black dress and speaking into a microphone, Barbara is wearing a white shirt and looking at papers, Maria is wearing a white dress with an orange and grey leaf motif and looking towards the camera, Birgitta is looking ahead and wearing a red sweater with a red and gold scarf.

Kicki NORDSTROM, Former President, World Blind Union

“I have been blind since birth and nowadays my husband and I run a little restaurant where we live. We work very much every day, at least 12 hours per day.”

Birgitta BLOKLAND, Founder EBU Women’s Network

“Representing The Netherlands, I first joined the EBU Women´sCommission in 1997 and chaired it for five years. In 2003, I became a member of the EBU boardand in 2007 was the first woman to be elected for the position of EBU secretary general. I served on the WBU executive and other committees until 2011.

In the past 8 years, I have taken on several EBU projects related to culture, accessibility, gender and low vision.

It was an honor for me toreceive the 2017 Arne Husveg Award for my contribution to EBU work.”

Barbara MARTÍN MUÑOZ, EBU Second Vice-President

“I am 44 years old and Spanish. I am a lawyer and hold a degree in Politics and Administration. I also have various Master degrees in legal practices and in managing small and medium-sized companies. I have over 11 years of experience in the field of international relations. Thanks to this, I started working in several commissions of EBU, and have a very active role in its concerns, such as the Marrakesh Treaty. Since October 2015 I have been its Second Vice-President.”

Maria KYRIACOU, EBU Secretary General

“I come from Cyprus, I am 47. In infancy, I was diagnosed with bilateral Retinoblastoma, which caused low vision and later total sight loss. I am a Special Education Teacher with a Master’s Degree in the Education of People with Visual Impairments and I have been a working as an expert in this field since 1995. My professional path within EBU started about 14 years ago. In 2011, I was elected as an ordinary member of the EBU Board and in 2015 as EBU Secretary General.”

Unn LJØNER HAGEN, President, Norwegian Association of the Blind and Partially Sighted

Picture shows Unn Ljøner Hagen

Description; Unn is seated at a table, speaking into a microphone, she is wearing a red top with a black jacket.

“I am 58, married and mother of 3 young adults. As a young adult myself, I was diagnosed with Retina Pigmentosa, and today I have a very low vision.  I am a political scientist of education and I have always been working 100%.”

Anja URŠIČ, PHD Student, Member of the Union of the Blind and Partially Sighted of Slovenia (a picture of Anja is shown in the article on participants interviews)

I am a partially sighted woman from Slovenia. I completed my studies from Management of Non-profit Organizations and currently, I am preparing my research design for doctoral thesis for the next academic year. I am very involved within our Union of The Blind and Partially Sighted, especially when talking about some youth trainings, writing articles, EBU projects, participating in conferences, etc. I am trying to be active in order to gain new knowledge, skills and competences in order to engage myself in issues which are closely related to special needs of the blind and partially sighted, at both national and European level. My motto is “get involved and be active!”

1.From personal and or professional experience can you tell us about the double discrimination of being visually impaired and a woman?

(BMM) It is quite hard to prove to everyone that I am very capable of many things. Because of my sight there are times that it takes more time to deliver. This is not always understood as such but as its contrary. It does not depend on me but on other people’s perception and prejudice. I am used to it but if, furthermore, the fact that I am woman implies something negative, then it really frustrates me very much. This is why my attitude is to demonstrate I am capable whether or not I am a woman.

(MK) Women with visual impairments are twice as likely to be discriminated against due to their gender and disability.  I consider myself quite lucky as I very rarely experience double discrimination, partly because I work in a dominantly female field and in educating people with visual impairments. At times, I had to prove my job was not granted as a favour and that I could perform as well or even better than my sighted colleagues. Therefore, it was important to work really hard, acquire new knowledge and skills, show passion for my work and develop excellent interpersonal relationships. As for my personal life, I created my own tools to deflect, call out and combat any sexist comment and I learned to surround myself with people who accept, appreciate and value me for who I truly am.

2.According to you, what were the highlights of the 2019 EBU Gear Conference? What did you learn?

(KN) To hear all the advice and initiatives, to reach women and listen and learn from them. Also to meet old good friends who are still on the move… Norway made a great impression on me when I listened to their important research.

(MK) The conference was truly successful. All sessions were very interesting and important and the programme allowed for many networking opportunities and lively and interactive discussions. Two sessions really moved me. The first was the history of gender equality work in the EBU. It was really inspiring to listen to Kicki Nordström, Birgitta Blokland and Barbara Martin reflecting on the journey from the past to this moment, recalling not only on the many barriers and challenges but also on the opportunities and the knowledge they accumulated which is an asset for moving forward. The other highlight was the presentation by the Norwegian Association of the Blind on the impact of the #MeToo campaign on their own organisation and steps taken to better respond to accusations and offences. I could not help but wonder if similar situations exists in other national member organisations, including mine.

(BMM) The review of the last 20 years on gender issues in EBU with  some women that were involved from the very beginning; The increased interest of women to be in the loop, active and ready to work with experience; The importance of talking of hard issues such as the violence against women, and moreover, women with disabilities.

(BB) Being able to meet face-to-face and network is absolutely necessary to keep up the motivation, the inspiration, to keep improving, making progress and reaching our goals. It was a joy to see old friends and so many new faces: competent, active women, ready to continue the work we started. It was very encouraging to hear their contributions during the interesting sessions. Many also clearly expressed the lack of information and guidance on what has been done so far and what is going on, they were not really aware of the EBU women´s network´s existence or how to get in touch. The conference was therefore great to (re)connect, share and see how the Network can support us in our joint effort.

(ULH) Many good and open-hearted discussions on modern issues, like research on visually impaired women, the #Metoo campaign and technology.

(AU) From a personal and professional viewpoint, I learned a lot about the importance of gender equality concerns within organisations for Blind and Partially Sighted people, and how the topic of gender is intrinsically linked to sustainable development and human rights for all. The Empowerment workshops in the conference gave me useful knowledge about models that can be implemented in organizational structures and management. One of the most effective tools presented there was a gender equality policy which can lead towards better gender representation in different working areas within organisations. Conducting gender differentiated researches, tackling female and male aspirations/needs separately, empowering women for leadership roles, organising trainings and workshops, are actions which essentially contribute to the fact that gender equality is properly mainstreamed and not left behind.

3.During the Conference, there was a very interesting point about the use of quotas in Norway, could you please summarise it?

(ULH) To get more female leaders in positions in different boards, the government introduced a new quota system which said that at least 40% of corporate board members should be qualified women. Men protested and said these women were impossible to find.  Today this has been a huge success. All public boards have fulfilled their quotas, and female leaders are much more visible in society.

4.How do you perceive gender issues within EBU?

(BMM) I think the organisation is very aware of it and does its best to be consequent with it, but if at a national level our members don´t motivate enough women in the international field, EBU cannot do much. This year’s Conference was a success because those who attended were not only motivated but convinced of the need and importance of women´s participation in all areas of life.

(MK) Gender equality and the empowerment of women with visual impairments within EBU has been a major commitment for me. In 2010 I worked with outstanding women from EBU in planning a women’s conference in my country. Since then, I have been coordinating the EBU women’s network. I also coordinated various projects to ensure the ongoing commitment of EBU to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. Tangible outcomes have been awareness raising material on the right to live without violence, a toolkit to mobilize organizations of persons with visual impairments to better focus on gender equality and the empowerment of women, a short video portraying ten women and their paths to the top. As a result, I now perceive gender issues within EBU as an ongoing commitment to increase gender mainstreaming in all EBU working areas, policies and documents as well as advance balanced representation at all levels of EBU. Projects such as GEAR are very important to raise awareness on the situation of visually impaired women and girls and to work towards the inclusion of blind and partially sighted women in society.

5.How can EBU men get more involved towards gender equity?

(BMM) Awareness raising is needed but it is not enough because theory is good but when it comes to practice there is a big gap that we need to bridge. In order to do so, we have to take advantage of the fact, for instance, that nowadays there are women in EBU board and provide them with more visibility and real empowerment.

(MK) I believe that EBU men are well aware of the theory behind gender equality. What they need to fully understand is the definition and practical usage of “gender equity”, as a means to reach the end goal, “gender equality”. EBU men need to realise that women with visual impairments face different challenges in full participation, representation and decent work opportunities. They therefore have to share the responsibility to adopt policies, plans and measures that lead towards equality and reduce intersectional discrimination based on gender, ensuring at the same time equitable access to resources and basic services as to obtain an inclusive and gender responsive organization. As the EBU national organisations have male-dominated boards, men can for example ensure that their organisations comply with the EBU constitution and send balanced delegations to the upcoming and future General Assemblies as well as identify possible female candidates when putting forward nominations for the Board and other leading positions. They can also provide the necessary resources and facilities for establishing national women’s networks as well as generate funds to organise national conferences and trainings on women’s leadership.

6.As one of the role models for future female leaders within EBU, what advice would you give them?

(KN) Take a seat in decision making groups, but remember, make sure that it is better with two women in one group than one woman in two. Your voice is important for many.

(BB) The purpose of the EBU Women´s Network is to share knowledge, experience and ideas, to support and inspire each other and contribute to EBU work. Any blind or partially sighted woman in Europe can join it.

Also, set up a small network around you, be prepared to work at different levels at the same time and determine which position can best serve your group’s objectives. Find common grounds with other groups in your organization and work together on these issues. Know how your organization operates, set a concrete plan of action and be active in recruiting and preparing women to continue the work when you move on.

(ULH) Never give up! It is hard to combine different roles in your daily life, but you must believe in your own strength and competence to do an equal job.

7.20 years ago, you founded the EBU Women’s Network. Looking back, what have been its impact, successes and shortcomings?

(BB) We organized the first EBU Women´s Forum right before the 1999 General Assembly. The EBU Women´s Network was set up with the Forum’s participants, in addition to the already existing Women´s Commission.

We established fruitful collaborations with other commissions on shared issues and objectives.

We produced many documents, e.g.  a position paper on the right to parenthood, a manual to include gender in all EBU work, reports, the Women´s Newsbulletin…

We generated constitutional amendments for balanced delegations and textual changes to reflect diversity and equality, including women and men, blind and partially sighted and all ages.

We put the taboo topic of violence against blind and partially sighted women on the agenda with a first project in 2003, and with a follow-up, a couple of years ago under the leadership of our current Secretary General.

To promote diversity and equality and gather good practice examples, we established the EBU Equality and Diversity Award (made by a visually impaired artist)...

Our Network also proves to be  a good pool to recruit women for projects that require specific knowledge, but also for future leaders.

On the down side, countries are to be made to comply with the constitution in a more effective way, as many still seem to skip the part on balanced delegations.

Due to lack of finances, in the past 20 years only two Network meetings could be held (in Cyprus and Sweden). We strive for one at every General Assembly.

We are also trying to restore our archive on gender, diversity and equality work, which was lost from the EBU office archives.

8.What would be your recommendations for a better gender equity within EBU and beyond?

(KN) To strive for gender equality at all levels of society. Our own organisations are important players. EBU can play an important role for strengthening national organisations that are not gender balanced. Meetings for women only and teaching what gender equality means for the organisation, but also for the country in general.

(MK) At the EBU GEAR conference participants adopted the Malmo Declaration. It calls for concrete actions, notably in the areas of gender equality and balanced representation, discrimination and violence against blind and partially sighted women and girls, empowerment, gender equality and the CRPD/SDGs. I do hope that EBU national organizations as well as the new Board embrace this Declaration and use it as a guiding principle. I honestly hope that at the 12th EBU General Assembly the perfectly gender balance national delegations will receive the report on the accomplishment of all the measures foreseen in this Declaration.

(AU) As I mentioned during the EBU GEAR Conference, Gender Equality must be put ahead on the agenda of every organisation for Blind and Partially Sighted people. The existing EBU Women’s Network should become more active at a European and international level, in order to lobby and influence decision makers in the political sphere. From my perspective, blind and partially sighted women should be given more opportunities to engage themselves and show how being active in their personal and professional life, is strengthening and empowering their aspirations in the near future.

(ULH) To make gender issues more visible, as part of better conditions of life and ways of living in modern societies.  EBU must get more knowledge and competence by implementing new studies and research in this field.

(BB) A number of recommendations can be found in the 2019 Malmö Declaration with the conclusions and call for action from the EBU GEAR conference, I believe EBU should lead by example, how can we demand of society to be more inclusive if we don´t practice what we preach in our own organisations? It all starts with genuine commitment to make this a shared responsibility, reflected in our constitution, policies, position papers and action plans with concrete and effective steps.

EBU protects the rights and promotes the interests of both blind and partially sighted women and men of all ages. For increased awareness, we need to keep using this specific wording and repeat it in all our communication.

The president and the board are leading in achieving more equity, as is the General Assembly. EBU should have a balanced governing body and also ensure that committees are appointed with a balanced membership.

It is vital to monitor and safeguard the work and achievements, so that measures that facilitate balanced representation, cannot be easily revoked by accident or ignorance. In the current EBU structure where all commissions have disappeared and no alternative monitoring body put in place, it is more difficult to influence the decision and policy making.

Although steps in the right directions have been made, it is really time for action and the GA as EBU´s highest body, after 20 years of talking, thinking, and preparing should now have what it takes to make it happen. Several national members have already been successful in achieving a better gender equity. Follow those examples of good practice - it can be done and is not that difficult if we all put our mind to it!

(BMM) I recommend to have a look at the resolution of the conference because it is clear, straight to the point, and realistic.