Women’s Rights & Disability

Recently, I went to the UN to attend a conference on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with DisabilitiesIt was an incredible opportunity, and I had an amazing experience. Before I talk about it, it’s important to clear up some misconceptions regarding disability. The disability community talks about impairments and disability. An impairment is the condition: deafness, blindness, cerebral palsy, autism, etc. Disability, on the other hand, is the interaction of that impairment with the rest of the world, which is made for people without disabilities. A person in a wheelchair coming across a set of stairs is the disability. This takes the impetus to change off of the person with a disability, and puts it onto society (UNCRPD).

Now, what does disability have to do with women’s rights? Firstly, the disability movement complicates and informs the women’s movement. It brings new perspectives to old issues, such as women’s sexual objectification and abortionBut it also reinforces certain ideas that the women’s movement has been addressing: ideas about control and normalcy. Secondly, in marginalized groups across the board, including people with disabilities, women are even more marginalized. Gender must be considered within disability frameworks in order to support women with disabilities. Thirdly, much as the mantra, ‘women’s rights are human rights’ inspires us to work towards a society that includes all women, the disability movement’s mantra, ‘nothing with us, without us’ expands that inclusivity. Every person, no matter what group they belong to or how they identify, deserves to enjoy their full human rights, and the disability movement reminds us of that.

Both gender and disability need to be seen as crosscutting issues; issues that impact and link multiple sectors of development that are often seen as independent. For example, sanitation is often viewed independently of education, but for girls, and especially girls with disabilities, lack of appropriate and accessible bathrooms at school can lead to their dropping out, leading to failure in the formal job market for women and women with disabilities, and keeping them impoverished. Lack of education and income independence leave women and women with disabilities more vulnerable to violence, which in turn, keeps women from entering the job market and pursuing an education. Another issue that affects groups of both non-disabled women and women with disabilities in similar ways is transportation. Women with physical impairments are most affected by inaccessible transportation and infrastructure (though people with sensory, psychosocial, or intellectual impairments can also be affected), but women without disabilities who cannot afford public transportation are also affected. Without accessible means of travel, women and girls with disabilities cannot get to, and therefore cannot access, educational, employment, or health care institutions, drastically limiting their full enjoyment of economic and social rights. Without the right to work, women with disabilities often become economically dependent on others. However, unlike for nondisabled women, attitudes towards people with disabilities, and women with disabilities especially, often create hostile living situations, because families see these women as burdens who cannot contribute economically, get married, or raise a family. This can lead to denial of food or health care by families, keeping women with disabilities from their most basic rights.

One issue that solely women with disability face is being seen as asexual. While many persons with disabilities are seen as asexual, women experience this in a more intense way, where men with disabilities can be seen as marriageable, but women with disabilities are not. This negatively affects women with disabilities’ right to a family as well as their right to education, health, and security. Women with disabilities have been denied fundamental sexual and reproductive health and rights and specifically sexual education, leading to higher rates of STIs in their communitiesand leaving them vulnerable to sexual violence. In addition to the view that women with disabilities are not marriageable, they are also seen as incapable of being mothers, which furthers the idea that they should not get married, since no one thinks they can fulfill the societal expectation of motherhood. In certain cases, fear of women with disabilities’ sexuality leads to their forced sterilization. If they are not going to be having sex, if they are not going to be mothers, then they will not need full reproductive functioning. Sterilization makes it easier for families to avoid menstruation and discussions about sexuality, but it denies a variety of rights and breaches multiple international treaties.

Both women and women with disabilities face barriers to our full inclusion in society, which is why coalitions must be formed to mainstream both gender and disability into policy and activism. Both groups can learn from the other’s experience, and work together to achieve our common goals. Exclusion of people with disabilities only impedes the work of human rights activists, moving us away from our goals not toward them. To create a just world, we all must have our rights.

by Katie Glick, Economic and Social Rights Intern, Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Rutgers University

Sexual Violence in Conflict Addressed at the UN Security Council

On June 24, 2013, the UN Security Council held an open session to vote on another resolution under the women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda with a particular focus on sexual violence in conflict. UN Security Council Resolution 2106 was passed by unanimous vote by the 15 members of the Council, and it builds on the commitments of previous resolutions (1325, 1820, 1888, and 1960) in the WPS framework.


The June 24 debate was led by the UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, who has been focused on this issue through his country’s Prevention of Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, and was presiding over the Security Council (SC) in June. Hague, who led the G8 foreign ministers in adopting the Declarationon Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict in April, exhorted the SC to make better commitments toward ending sexual violence in conflict and providing resources to mitigate the causes and affects of this form of gender-based violence.

Hague told the assembled participants, “We can grasp the opportunity to shatter the culture of impunity once and for all, or we can let it slip away, and with it the hopes of survivors and vulnerable women, children, and men worldwide.”

Echoing the Resolution under vote in the chamber, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon told the Security Council, “Sexual violence occurs wherever conflict rages. It has devastating effects on survivors and destroys the social fabric of whole communities…[and] when used as a weapon of war, it can significantly exacerbate conflict and seriously hamper reconciliation.” He called on States to take ownership in addressing sexual violence that occurs under their jurisdiction.

UN Special Representative of the SG on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, told the Council that it is “cost-free to rape a woman, child, or man in conflict” and it is possible today for the international community to “reverse this reality…[which] will require leadership and political courage, and a relentless determination to match the cold, calculating brutality of those who would rape the innocent for military or political gain.”

Women at the Center

Adding to the earlier resolutions in the WPS framework, Resolution 2106 calls for more women in the security sector reform process and in peacekeeping missions as security sectors as “Women Protection Advisors” (mentioned in UN SCR 1820) in peace building missions.

The Resolution also acknowledges the important role of civil society, women’s organizations and networks at the community level for protection against sexual violence. It recognizes that sexual violence (SV) occurs against men and boys in the conflict context, and they must not be left out of conversation. SC members and attending member states generally agreed that sexual violence is often used as a weapon of war, and is a violation of human rights; that the stigma of sexual violence must be placed on the perpetrators of these crimes, and no longer on the victims. Many states in their individual statements echoed the words of the Resolution: that women are not just passive victims of sexual violence or of history and that they must be included in peace processes and stabilization programs, as experts and as decision-makers. There was great emphasis on providing services for victims including psychological and physical rehabilitation. States urged the Security Council that more must be done to address the root causes of conflict in order to end the frequency of conflict and of sexual violence in conflict.

Participants agreed on the need for collaboration between national and international justice mechanisms in combating sexual violence, but with the greater onus on states to create policies and legislation conducive to this effort, and that perpetrators of SV see prosecution and punishment.

Going Forward

The Resolution also called on the response to sexual violence prevention and protection efforts to focus both on protecting women, but also improving the space for women as actors and active stakeholders in ending sexual violence.

Some states voiced their worry that dividing elements of the WPS framework into specific resolutions puts stress on specific issues, but may also weaken the holistic strength of the WPS agenda. Those concerned with long-term empowerment of women in the WPS framework worry that this resolution serves to overshadow efforts to bring women on as peacemakers and decision-makers in the political realm. Sweden on behalf of the Nordic countries called on the SC to be mindful not to sideline the larger WPS agenda with increasing attention on ending sexual violence in conflict.

The lack of enforcement mechanisms that can monitor and hold governments accountable when they fail to address sexual violence committed by perpetrators living in the state’s national jurisdiction is a continuing problem. Despite the Resolution calling on States to support the office of Zainab Hawa Bangura, the provision of more Women Protection Advisors in peace building and justice and security sector reform efforts still do not ensure how many resources will be available and what implementation will look like.

The Resolution does not provide for a clear mechanism that can bring perpetrators to justice at the international level or sue government officials who look the other way when crimes are committed. The use of the International Criminal Court is limited in this regard because not only many states have yet to sign and ratify the Rome Statute, the emphasis on State responsibility to bring perpetrators to justice begs the question – who do criminals have to answer to? Tribunals and other transitional justice mechanisms are created on a case by case basis and the prosecution of sexual violence cases depend on which grievances are given attention, how willing victims are in talking, and what evidence exists to bring criminals to justice.

The usefulness of this Resolution remains to be seen. Previous resolutions under the Women, Peace, and Security framework have still to be fully implemented, and another resolution in its chest of drawers adds to the clutter of rhetoric. It is hoped that UN SCR 2106 is not merely another symbolic gesture on the part of world leaders.

by Zarin Hamid, Gender-Based Violence Program Coordinator, Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Rutgers University