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Published in: 09/16/2016

Women and girls with disabilities need empowerment, not pity, UN experts tell States

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States too often fail to uphold their obligations with regard to women and girls with disabilities, treating them or allowing them to be treated as helpless objects of pity, subjected to hostility and exclusion, instead of empowering them to enjoy their fundamental human rights and freedoms, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) has said.

“Policies for women have traditionally made disability invisible, and disabilities policies have overlooked gender. But if you are a woman or a girl with disabilities, you face discrimination and barriers because you are female, because you are disabled, and because you are female and disabled,” said Committee member Theresia Degener.

To help to address this, the Committee has issued guidance for the 166 States that have ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on how they can promote the empowerment of women with disabilities to enable them to participate in all spheres of life on an equal basis with others, as set out in the Convention and expressly in Article 6.

The guidance, termed a General Comment, stresses that refraining from discriminatory actions is not enough. States need to empower women by “ raising their self-confidence, guaranteeing their participation, and increasing their power and authority to take decisions in all areas affecting their lives.” 

The guidelines note that there are three main areas of concern regarding women and girls with disabilities:

  • Physical, sexual, or psychological violence, which may be institutional or interpersonal;
  • Restriction of sexual and reproductive rights, including the right to accessible information and communication, the right to motherhood and child-rearing responsibilities;
  • Multiple discrimination.

Women and girls with disabilities need to be recognised as individuals who enjoy the same rights as others to make decisions about their lives, the Committee notes. “Women with disabilities are often treated as if they have no control or should have no control over their sexual and reproductive rights,” the General Comment says.   For example, women and girls with disabilities are particularly at risk of forced sterilisation, while mothers with disabilities are more likely to have their children taken away.

The General Comment details the measures States parties should take in a range of areas, including health, education, access to justice, and equality before the law, transport and employment, to enable women and girls with disabilities to fully enjoy their human rights.

“Our recommendations cover practical steps, such as planning public services that work for women with disabilities, and involving them in the design of products so they can use them. Think of the women and girls with disabilities who face huge and daily hurdles with regard to water, sanitation and hygiene, and how guaranteeing accessible facilities, services and products could transform their lives,” CRPD member Diane Kingston said. 

“Our General Comment also covers attitudes. For example, girls and young women with disabilities face not only prejudices encountered by persons with disabilities in general but are often constrained by traditional gender roles and barriers that can lead to situations where they receive less care and food than boys, or where their chances to get an education or training are much reduced and hence their future prospects of employment,” Committee member Ana Pelaez highlighted.

The General Comment calls on States parties to repeal or reform all legislation which discriminates, either directly or indirectly, against women and girls with disabilities, and also urges public campaigns to overcome and transform long-held discriminatory attitudes towards women with disabilities. 

“We hope that States parties will be guided by this General Comment to review their laws and practices to achieve greater recognition and fulfilment of the human rights of women and girls with disabilities,” said Committee Chair María Soledad Cisternas Reyes.