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Why women with disabilities must not be left behind

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the strides that have been made in improving the lives of women globally. This year’s theme is the ‘Pledge for Parity‘, highlighting issues of gender inequality, and recognising that there is still a long way to go before the inequities experienced by many women are fully addressed.

Women are not a homogeneous group, and multiple contributing factors affect their lives and experiences, including age, location, religion, socioeconomic position and disability status. Persons with disabilities have been described as the world’s largest minority, and it is estimated that around 15% of the global population live with some form of disability. Women are more likely to experience disability than males: the prevalence of disability is 11% higher in females.

There are several reasons for this disparity, including childbirth and age. The World Bank estimates that every minute more than 30 women are disabled or injured through labour. Women on average live longer than men, and because the prevalence of disability rises with age, there are a disproportionately greater number of older women with disabilities.

Cultural practices and traditional roles support and perpetuate inequitable power relations between men and women. Many women and girls continue to face inequitable access to education, health services and employment. Women and girls with disabilities face a double discrimination, by which the inequalities that females face are compounded by the stigma and prejudice often directed towards persons with disabilities. For example, completion of primary school education is affected by both gender and disability status. UNICEF estimated in 2013 that only half of non-disabled girls completed primary education compared with two thirds of boys. However, less than half of all girls with disabilities complete primary education, lower than both boys with disabilities and girls without disabilities.

And it is women who predominantly perform informal care within the household; this means that they are less likely to be able to access paid employment on an equal basis with men. Women may therefore contribute less to the household financially, and have less say about how the money is used. However, whilst little importance is often given to unpaid care and domestic work, its economic value can be as high as that of key economic sectors within a country.

If employed, women are more likely to work in informal or insecure jobs, and in some developing regions more than 75% of women’s employment is such. Women with disabilities are less likely to find paid employment in the first place, and when they do, they are often paid significantly less than others and have little job security.

Although as likely as other women to form relationships and have children, women with disabilities may be less likely to establish stable long-term relationships, marry or have their relationships formally recognised. This may limit their independence and ability to establish their own households, or to have a voice in the social, religious or political lives of their communities.

Women’s roles within the community can also have an effect on the probability of acquiring an impairment. The recent Ebola crisis in West Africa disproportionately affected women, due to gendered cultural and traditional practices, such as caring for the sick. The long-term impacts of Ebola are only just beginning to be understood, but a recent survey of survivors found that many experience disabling neurological symptoms lasting long after the immediate effects of the disease.

Gender inequalities reach beyond gender roles during health crises such as Ebola, to all health issues. For example, the ability to access needed funds for childbirth may affect the risk of acquiring an impairment. If, due to the inability to pay, a woman is not able to access quality healthcare during childbirth, this increases the risk of damaging consequences. This risk may be further increased for pregnant women already living with a disability if their families do not want to expend household resources to make sure they get the level of care needed.

There have been strides towards gender parity. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) placed emphasis on gender equality, leading to significant improvements in maternal and child health, education and access to water and sanitation. MDG3 specifically called on States to ‘promote gender equity and empower women’, and Target 3A promotes the elimination of gender disparity in primary and secondary education. The developing region as a whole has achieved gender parity in education. However, aggregating data to regional averages masks national and within-country differences, and because the MDGs did not mention disability, States were not required to report on progress for persons with disabilities. It is becoming increasingly apparent that persons with disabilities, and specifically women with disabilities, did not benefit from development initiatives on a par with their non-disabled peers.

Unlike the MDGs, the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call to ‘leave no one behind’ and include disability specifically in several Goals and Targets. States will therefore be required to gather data on persons with disabilities to show their progress towards meeting the Goals. However, disability is not specifically highlighted in the gender Goal (Goal 5), and while the goal is universal, speaking to ‘all women and girls everywhere’, the lack of mention of women and girls with disabilities means that there is a risk that, like with the MDGs, females with disabilities may be overlooked and vital opportunities to improve their lives will be lost.

There are also international instruments that promote and protect the rights of women and girls with disabilities. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), now ratified by over 160 countries, highlights gender as a key issue for persons with disabilities. Article 6 recognises that women and girls with disabilities may face multiple discriminations and calls on signatories to ensure the ‘full development, advancement and empowerment of women’, enabling them to enjoy their human rights.

While the CRPD does not set out any new rights for women (and men) with disabilities, it reinforces rights already set out in other conventions, such as the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Both the CRC and CEDAW state that the rights set out in the conventions apply to all women and to all children. However, the CRPD reiterates the fact that the universal rights set out in the CRC and CEDAW apply equally to disabled women and girls.

On International Women’s Day we have a lot to celebrate. There has been significant progress towards achieving the MDGs, including the gender Goal. However, with the advent of the SDGs, the rights of women and girls with disabilities need to be prioritised and they must be included in all programmes to realise all the Goals (not only gender-focused Goals). This is necessary to ensure that the gender gap between men and women is closed, as well as the parity gap between women with and without disabilities. Otherwise women and girls with disabilities risk being left further behind, with the gap further widening.

Featured image © UNAMID


Ellie ColeEllie Cole is programme coordinator at the Leonard Cheshire Disability and Inclusive Development Centre, and recently completed a Master’s in Global Health & Development at UCL. Ellie’s work surrounds the issues faced by persons with disabilities in low- and middle-income countries. She is currently working on a research project examining comparative well-being between disabled and non-disabled people in Liberia.

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