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Women and Girls with Disabilities Must Not Be Excluded

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by Achayo Rose Obol and Stephanie Johanssen

As we commemorate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3 December, we celebrate an increasing recognition of the leadership and expertise that women and girls with disabilities bring to the table.

Recent calls to apply an intersectional lens to humanitarian action have also led to greater attention to women and girls with disabilities. This is a welcome development, but we must not forget that women and girls with disabilities, and their representative organizations, have been self-organizing and advocating for their rights for decades, both in law and in practice.

At the Fourth World Conference on Women, 25 years ago, it was thanks to women with disabilities that the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a progressive blueprint for women’s rights, referenced women and girls with disabilities throughout. In particular, the Platform for Action calls on governments to “ensure non-discrimination and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by women and girls with disabilities, including their access to information and services in the field of violence.”

However, exclusion persists. Structural discrimination against women and girls with disabilities, as well as negative attitudes and stigma, are among the main barriers to the full realization of rights. This is particularly true for adolescent girls with disabilities and displaced women and girls. Women refugees with disabilities face triple discrimination: as a woman, as a person with a disability, and as a refugee. As Nujeen Mustafa, a disability rights advocate who fled the war in Syria, described it: “Being a woman and having a disability makes it doubly more difficult. For example, a man can ask for help from a male friend to flee. But in a society like Syria, a woman cannot. If you don’t have an immediate male relative, you cannot just call on a friend to carry you.”

Here are some areas where progress is crucial to advancing the rights of women and girls with disabilities.

Ensuring meaningful participation

Too often, women and girls with disabilities are only viewed through a protection lens, but their participation in decisions that affect them and their communities is equally important. Feminist and humanitarian forums can lead the way to be more inclusive and ensure that women with different disabilities are represented and listened to. This starts with the planning process, information sharing, and working in partnership with women-led organizations of persons with disabilities. Women and girls with disabilities must participate in all decisions affecting their future, including on humanitarian, development, and peace and security issues. Last year, the Inter-Agency Steering Committee, a humanitarian coordination forum of the United Nations, published the first-ever Guidelines on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Settings, which provide an important resource to ensure meaningful participation.

Gender-Based Violence

COVID-19 has brought new visibility to the inequalities women and girls face. Ongoing restrictions on movement and lack of income have placed women and girls, including those with physical, intellectual, psychosocial, and sensory disabilities, at heightened risk of violence by abusive partners. Even before the pandemic, studies have shown that women and girls with disabilities are at increased risk of violence, abuse, and exploitation compared to those without disabilities. In crises, loss of community support and protection mechanisms exacerbates the risk of rape and other forms of gender-based violence (GBV), especially for women and girls with disabilities who already face limitations on their personal mobility. And yet, responses to GBV often neglect their specific needs. Health services, shelters, and information for survivors of GBV must be accessible to women and girls with disabilities, who face multiple barriers in seeking help.

Access to Livelihoods

Women with disabilities are also at greater risk of poverty because of the discrimination they face in education and access to livelihoods. The closure of economic opportunities and food shortages caused by COVID-19 have hit women and girls with disabilities hard, especially single mothers. Shifts to remote working and schooling have created additional challenges for women with disabilities, who may not have access to information and communication technology or appropriate assistive devices. Organizations like the National Union of Women with Disabilities of Uganda (NUWODU) have stepped up in providing women with disabilities resources to provide for themselves, but need more support. We must ensure that funding mobilized by the international community and governments in response to COVID-19 also benefits women’s rights organizations, especially women-led grassroots organizations.

Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

Women and girls with disabilities face discrimination in all spheres, and sexual and reproductive health and rights are no exception. Negative assumptions, for example, that women with disabilities are not capable of having consensual relationships, are patronizing and leave women and girls more vulnerable to abuse, unwanted pregnancies, and sexually transmitted infections. The reproductive rights of women and girls with disabilities continue to be routinely violated, including by countries that have still not banned forced sterilization of women and girls with disabilities. COVID-19 has made scaling up of sexual and reproductive services even more urgent , including access to contraception and menstrual health. Governments and service providers should provide age-, gender-, and disability-inclusive sexual and reproductive services, in particular for adolescent girls who face interruptions in schooling and access to information.

Advocating for the rights and equal opportunities for women and girls with disabilities can’t be limited to a commemorative day once a year. It is part of our collective mission to ensure equality for all. Today and every day.

Achayo Rose Obol is a social and community worker and Chairperson of the Board of Directors at the National Union of Women with Disabilities of Uganda (NUWODU). Stephanie Johanssen is Associate Director of Advocacy and the UN Representative at the Women’s Refugee Commission.