Women and disability
Table of Contents
What is disability?
According to WHO, ‘Disabilities’ is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations.
Thus disability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.
Declarations on women and disability
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Article 6 – Women with disabilities) reads as follows:
1. States Parties recognize that women and girls with disabilities are subject to multiple discrimination, and in this regard shall take measures to ensure the full and equal enjoyment by them of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.
2. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure the full development, advancement and empowerment of women, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of the human rights and fundamental freedoms set out in the present Convention.
The Beijing Platform for Action (Para 46) recognizes disability as one of the barriers women with disability face. It says, “The Platform for Action recognizes that women face barriers to full equality and advancement because of such factors as their race, age, language, ethnicity, culture, religion or disability, because they are indigenous women or because of other status…”
The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women shows concern “that some groups of women, such as women belonging to minority groups, indigenous women, refugee women, migrant women, women living in rural or remote communities, destitute women, women in institutions or in detention, female children, women with disabilities, elderly women and women in situations of armed conflict, are especially vulnerable to violence…”
The situation at a glance
Women with disabilities make up a sizeable proportion of the global population, and a majority of the population of persons with disabilities is in developing countries, and in spite of such declarations as above, it is estimated that:
Women with disabilities make up at least 10% of all women globally (WHO)
Women with disabilities comprise three quarters of all disabled people in low and middle-income countries (USAID)
65-70% of women with disabilities in low and middle-income countries live in rural areas (USAID)
Women in general are more likely than men to become disabled because of poorer working conditions, poor access to quality healthcare, and gender-based violence (ILO)
Only 25% of women with disabilities are in the global workforce (UN)
Because of increased risk of gender-based violence and lack of access to reproductive health care services, women with disabilities face unique challenges in preventing HIV infection (WB)
Literacy rates for women with disabilities globally may be as low as 1% (UNDP)
Mortality rates amongst girls with disabilities are much higher than for boys with disabilities (USAID, UNICEF)
Issues relating to women with disability and development programs
According to USAID, some of the specific issues related to women with disabilities and development programs are:
Gender-Based Violence: Women and girls with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to abuse. For example, a small 2004 survey in Orissa, India found that virtually all of the women and girls with disabilities were beaten at home, 25% of women with intellectual disabilities had been raped and 6% of women with disabilities had been forcibly sterilized.
Rule of Law: Legal barriers exist for women with disabilities that hamper their right to marry and found a family. For example, in Tanzania, consent for marriage must be given “freely and voluntarily”. However, consent is not considered valid when either party has a mental disability based on the assumption that he or she cannot fully understand the nature of the ceremony. Similar laws exist in Cambodia and China.
HIV/AIDS: A recent World Bank study states that women with disabilities are at a higher risk of obtaining HIV/AIDS due to lack of awareness and lack of access to traditional HIV/AIDS programs. Furthermore, the folk belief that individuals with sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, can rid themselves of the infection if they have intercourse with a virgin poses a particular risk for disabled children due to the mistaken belief that individuals with a disability are sexually inactive – hence virgins.
Human Trafficking: Women and girls with disabilities are at risk of being trafficked and forced into prostitution. In Thailand, for example, UNICEF reports that proprietors of houses of prostitution have specifically sought out deaf girl children and adolescents, with the idea that such young people will be less able to communicate their distress or find their way back home in a world where neither their customers nor their employers or fellow sex workers are able to speak sign language. In Taiwan, a recent study found that the proportion of child prostitutes who had mild developmental disabilities was six times greater than what might be expected from the incidence in the general population.
Barriers between women with disability and access to services
Again, according to USAID, the barriers that prevent women with disabilities from accessing services include:
Physical Barriers: Physical barriers exist that prevent women and girls with disabilities from receiving various services and participating in international development programs. For example, a recent survey in South Africa has found that the services for battered women, with a few exceptions, are generally not accessible or appropriate to the needs of women with disabilities.
Attitudinal Barriers: People with disabilities often face stigmas and exclusion resulting from limited knowledge and understanding of the causes of disability. For example, in India, women with physical disabilities are not eligible to receive reproductive health services because they are considered to have no marriage prospects.
Organizational Barriers: Projects are often implemented without adequate consultation from people with disabilities or the disabled community, which can result in programs that are not accessible or discriminate against people with disabilities.
What the UN says
According to the UN WomenWatch,
“Girls and women of all ages with any form of disability are generally among the more vulnerable and marginalized of society” (“Further actions and initiatives to implement the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action”, General Assembly Resolution S-23/3 of 10 June 2000, annex, paragraph 63).
“Less than 5 per cent of children and young persons with disabilities have access to education and training; and girls and young women face significant barriers to participating in social life and development” (Secretary-General of the United Nations in his report on the Implementation of the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled, A/56/169, paragraph 79).
“The global literacy rate for adults with disabilities is as low as 3 per cent, and 1 per cent for women with disabilities, according to a 1998 UNDP study” (UN DPI fact sheet)
“People with disabilities in general face difficulties in entering the open labour market, but, seen from a gender perspective, men with disabilities are almost twice as likely to have jobs than women with disabilities. When women with disabilities work, they often experience unequal hiring and promotion standards, unequal access to training and retraining, unequal access to credit and other productive resources, unequal pay for equal work and occupational segregation, and they rarely participate in economic decision-making” (Arthur O’Reilly. “Employment Barriers for Women with Disabilities” in “The Right to Decent Work of Persons with Disabilities” IFP/Skills Working Paper No. 14. International Labour Organization, 2003).
“Every minute, more than 30 women are seriously injured or disabled during labor… However, those 15 – 50 million women generally go unnoticed”(World Bank, “Health, nutrition and population: Reproductive health and disability”).
“Women with disabilities, of all ages, often have difficulty with physical access to health services. Women with mental disabilities are particularly vulnerable, while there is limited understanding, in general, of the broad range of risks to mental health to which women are disproportionately susceptible as a result of gender discrimination, violence, poverty, armed conflict, dislocation and other forms of social deprivation” (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women General Recommendation 24 Women and Health, in relation to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Article 12) (Twentieth session, 1999, paragraph 25).
“Depressive disorders account for close to 41.9 per cent of the disability from neuropsychiatric disorders among women compared to 29.3 per cent among men” (Women’s mental health: The Facts, World Health Organization)
“Women with disabilities face significant barriers in accessing adequate housing and services” (Study by Miloon Kothari, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, “Women and adequate housing”, E/CN.4/2005/43, paragraph 64).
“Women with disabilities are … more likely institutionalized than men with disabilities” (Study by Miloon Kothari, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, “Women and adequate housing”, E/CN.4/2005/43, paragraph 64).
According to the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), India,
-Self-help groups of disabled women need to be organised. These women are to be made aware of the rights through training in self-advocacy.
-Rights of disabled women should feature in the mainstream women’s movement.
-Governments should frame policies catering specifically for women with disabilities.
-Training for women with disabilities needs to be geared towards developing a positive self-concept and self-image. They are to be empowered to recognise that they too are contributing and responsible members of society.