Disabled women are one of the most marginalised groups in the world. According to the United Nations (UN) they are:
- 3 times less likely to be literate compared to disabled men;
- Twice less likely to be in employment. When in jobs, they are much more likely to do low paid work;
- Disabled women are much more likely to be victims of violence and often have to endure it for longer, because appropriate support is not there;
- 50% of disabled women have experienced domestic abuse compared with 25% of non-disabled women;
- Disabled women are twice as likely to be assaulted or raped as non-disabled women.
Both men and women with a limiting illness or disabilities are more likely to experience intimate partner violence.
- A study of women who access mental health services identified between 50% and 60% had experienced domestic violence, and up to 20% were currently being abused;
- Disabled women are less likely to have access to health services, including family planning and contraception advice. Some are subjected to invasive procedures such as sterilisation or abortions without their consent;
- Disabled women are overrepresented among those parents whose children are being removed.
There are many reasons for this appalling situation disabled women face. Those reasons are complex. Disabled women were largely overlooked by feminist movement and although disability rights movement was largely gender neutral, it until recently failed to address the specific needs of disabled women. That’s why the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is so important for disabled women.
Before moving to talk about the Convention, I want to tell you a couple of stories of disabled women.
Aisha is deaf. She lives with her husband and their 2 children. Her husband works and she depends on him financially. He also is the only adult person who helps her to be in touch with the hearing world. She also relies on the help from her children, but sometimes it is just not appropriate to ask them to interpret. Whenever she has medical appointments or just needs to go to her children’s school or shops her husband or children have to interpret for her. From very beginning of their marriage he was abusive to her. He often hit her and sometimes raped her. She tried to talk to her parents about this, but they told her to be kind to him, as in their view it is worse to be alone, than to be with him. Friends told her to call the police next time he beats her, but she is afraid. She knows there isn’t anywhere she can go to, she depends on him totally. Police are not likely to believe her and what will happen to her if he leaves?
Mary has learning difficulties. She lives in a home with other people with learning difficulties. Mary fell in love, had sex and became pregnant. She was told about sexuality or given advice about contraception she did not realise what was happening to her. Her parents wanted her to have an abortion, but could not achieve this, as Mary did not agree. While she was pregnant nobody told her what would happen at birth or spoken to her about looking after her child. Mary had a very traumatic experience at birth and after that her daughter was removed.
UN CRPD is an international instrument that protects both of those women and all other disabled women in the world.
The Convention recognises equality between women and men as one of its key principles. When it was developed, it has been decided to take a twin track approach, meaning that there is a specific article about disabled women along with specific mentions of gender in other articles. The convention seeks to address some of the specific areas where disabled women are most discriminated against.
Article 6, a specific article about disabled women, recognises that they face multiple discrimination and requires states to take all appropriate measures to ensure disabled women can enjoy their human rights on the equal basis with others. Article 6 is a cross-cutting article. It therefore should be applied to all the rights in the Convention.
Article 6 has 2 parts:
First, it is about multiple discrimination disabled women face. Many of us have multiple identities and we are impacted by discrimination cumulatively as disabled women. Multiple discrimination is discrimination based on more than one status. Its effects can combine or grounds can interlink. Disabled women’s situation is often influenced by the fact of both disability and gender. Other factors such as race and ethnicity or economic situation can also have a huge impact.
Multiple discrimination can happen in private and public spheres and the states have a duty to protect in both.
Discrimination disabled women face can take a form of direct discrimination, when disabled women are specifically excluded because of their gender and disability. Indirect discrimination – when policies seem neutral, but have disproportionate effect on disabled women. In the UK for example we argued that disabled women suffered the most from the recent austerity measures.
A denial of reasonable accommodation is also discriminatory. When disabled women for example cannot access breast cancer screening programmes because there is no equipment to accommodate their access needs it can be seen as a denial of reasonable adjustments.
It is important therefore to recognise that violence against disabled women, lack of access to health or maternity services, socio-economic situation of disabled women or lack of their participation and non-existence of their voices in political debate are all caused by multiple discrimination they face. It is also important to remember that disabled women are a very diverse group and there is a great inequality even within this group.
Do we hear the voices of women from ethnic minority backgrounds?
Do we hear the voices of women with learning difficulties?
Do we know the experiences of LGBT disabled women?
Development, advancement and empowerment
The second part of Article 6 talks about the need to take all appropriate measures to secure development, advancement and empowerment of disabled women. Development means giving women better chance in life by developing their skills and knowledge, improving education, economic situation, health, political participation etc. Advancement requires ensuring situation constantly improves. Empowerment moves women from subjects of pity to right holders and decision makers. In order to be empowered women need to know about their rights and often need a chance to support each other and help each other have a voice. Empowerment is not only about taking part in political life, for many it is about standing up for themselves, being heard within their families, feeling confident and able to make choices. Empowerment is about feeling you are of an equal worth with others and you are making equal contribution in your own way.
In short, state’s obligations towards disabled women include the following:
Respect – not to take measures that undermine the development, advancement and empowerment of disabled women and girls. For example, not to introduce policies that may have a detrimental impact on disabled women or weaken protections disabled women already had.
Protect – ensure private bodies do not infringe the rights. For example, passing the laws that protect disabled women against violence. Obligation to protect requires states to prevent, investigate, provide redress and protect the victims. In a context of violence, the states need to look at the positive measures they are taking to prevent it from happening. Are there effective ways for reporting it? Many of us need support to do this. Will those reports be investigated and will perpetrators be punished. Most importantly, will disabled women who experienced violence get support to deal with it and move on. For many this support should include help to live independently in the community. Many of us are afraid to flee violent relationships, because we depend on the perpetrators not only financially, but also for support with our care needs.
Fulfil – To adopt measures needed to secure the development, advancement and empowerment. This requires specific resources and actions to advance the equality for disabled women.
It is really important to ensure there is enough information to assess the situation of disabled women. That’s why the collection of data is vital. The data that is collected about disabled people should be desegregated by gender. On the other hand, the data about women should include the data about disabled women specifically.
When CRPD was developed disabled people, including disabled women, played a key part in the process. Nothing about us without us was truly acted upon. And CRPD recognises that disabled people, including disabled women should be involved in the process of implementation of the Convention and its monitoring.
It is important to remember that obligations in Article 6 are immediately applicable. States cannot rely on progressive realisation.
Now I would like to focus on some specific areas of particular concern. Those are:
- Violence against disabled women and girls,
- Sexuality, reproductive rights and motherhood
- And socio-economic situation
Violence against disabled women and girls
As I said at the beginning, we are more likely to be victims of violence. Disabled women are likely to endure it for longer and have very little opportunities to escape. Violence happens because of dependency generally, but dependency of disabled women can be much greater. Perpetrator is often our carer, and sometimes the only carer. We feel it is much harder for us to make it alone. Who would look after us if we lose our main carer? Many of us are afraid to lose children. The feeling of being trapped is very strong and can be caused by many factors which link together.
We are often targeted because of stereotypes, limited mobility, social isolation, economic dependency, difficulties with communication, etc.
Our abusers can be family members, support workers, staff at institutions. We often are made to feel grateful for all the help they give us, so we feel powerless to stand up to them and complain. General public largely is sorry for them for the hard life they have looking after a disabled person, do they care about us? Probably not. We are often not believed. How those who look after us could abuse us? And they can always find justifications. Many parents for example who want their daughters sterilised justify this as a way to protect them.
Many of us don’t even know that what we endure is not normal. We don’t always know where to go for help and what to say to get help. Some of us need communication support to ask for help, and often rely on perpetrators or other family members to provide it.
Those who do report violence and try to flee often find themselves in a situation where there is nowhere to go. Many of us have to choose either getting some support in an abusive relationship or not getting support for our disability at all.
Sexuality, reproductive rights and motherhood
When I was young, I was often told that people like me should not have children. It is often assumed that disabled women either cannot or should not be mothers. They should not have sex and should not know about it.
Many of us never get sex education. We do not always get family planning advice. Sometimes our families or professionals looking after us get advice on our behalf and make us undergo invasive treatments, such as abortions or sterilisations. We often can’t access reproductive health services or screening programmes for females.
Those of us who have children are constantly afraid to do something wrong. We cannot ask for help because our children could be taken away.
On one hand we are discriminated and marginalised like all other women are, but on the other, we also have to battle the assumptions that we cannot fulfil a female gender role.
When I apply for jobs I know the employers would firstly be reluctant to offer a job to me because I am disabled, but also because I AM A WOMAN. Disability causes poverty and on the other hand poverty leads too much greater chance of disability. Disabled women are less likely to be in work and if they are they earn less. We are disproportionately more likely to be a part of informal economy. This is why we have to rely on services and the support from social security system. Disabled women are more likely to rely on services and would be disproportionately affected by austerity measures.
Gender and disability mainstreaming
One way to ensure the specific needs of disabled women are met in the policymaking is to implement gender and disability mainstreaming. It is important to analyse the policies and assess their possible impact on disabled women. Disabled women should benefit from programmes targeted at women or at disabled people in general.
Disabled women are women and like all other women they are also protected by other international human rights instruments, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) for example. Disabled women should enjoy all the rights guaranteed by CEDAW like all other women and as part of disability mainstreaming, disabled women should be considered when states monitor the implementation of CEDAW.
And finally, I would like to reiterate this point again. It is important to recognise that we all are different, our different voices need to be heard and different experiences should be valued and taken into account.
For further information follow this link.
This presentation was written by Svetlana Kotova, one of the founding members of Sisters of Frida – a collective of disabled women in the UK. She does training on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) with Disability Lib and is the Policy and Campaigns Advisor at Sense. She is also a proud mother of a toddler daughter.
On 13th July, Svetlana went to speak about Article 6 of the CRPD (‘Women with disabilities’) – representing Sisters of Frida – at the invitation by the Polish Disability Forum and their partners. This was part of the project “Implementation of the UN Convention on Rights of Disabled Persons – a common cause”, co-funded by the European Social Fund.
ENIL thanks the Sisters of Frida, who first published this article, for permission to make it available on our website.