Recently, I went to the UN to attend a conference on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It 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 abortion. But 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 communities, and 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