Ashura Michael is a Young Voices campaigner from Kenya; she has a hearing impairment. As a budding lawyer she is passionate about supporting women who have experienced violence and abuse.
She recently took on the case of a young Kenyan girl with a hearing impairment who was raped by one of her teachers and became pregnant. She stopped going to her lessons and was kept locked in her dormitory by the school – as an orphan she had no family support. Ashura heard of her story and, enlisting the help of local officials, managed to get the girl removed from her school and placed in the care of guardians. The case against the teacher is still being pursued. But many women with disabilities who experience violence do not have the support of someone as dedicated as Ashura. There are several barriers that prevent them from accessing justice and support.
Cases of violence regularly go unreported, due to a range of factors including low confidence levels, scarce information about rights, and high levels of dependency on caregivers, who in some cases may also be the perpetrators of the abuse. Police stations and health facilities are often physically inaccessible. Police and other professionals frequently lack the awareness and skills needed to support women with disabilities who report abuse, and this is often compounded by a lack of support systems and a general unwillingness to give weight to their testimony. A mother in Kenya was told that her daughter of 13, also a victim of rape, would not be able to pursue the case ‘as the girl is deaf and disabled and is not able to give evidence in court’.
International Women’s Day (IWD) on 8 March is an annual opportunity to celebrate progress made towards equality for women since the day was first officially observed in 1975 by the UN during International Women’s Year. But it is also a reminder of how far we still are from this goal. For women with disabilities in particular, who face double discrimination due to their disability and their gender, equality is a distant dream.
Only 25 per cent of women with disabilities are in the global workforce. Literacy rates for women with disabilities globally may be as low as one per cent and mortality rates among girls with disabilities are much higher than for boys, according to the UN Development Programme. These statistics are not just heart-breaking. They are a reflection of denied opportunities for women worldwide. Women are more likely than men to become disabled because of poor access to quality healthcare, gender-based violence and poorer working conditions. In low-and middle-income countries it is estimated that three-quarters of all disabled people are women. Disability further increases their risk of being sicker, poorer, less educated and more socially isolated than either men with disabilities or non-disabled women.
Gender-based violence is a global epidemic. Women with disabilities are twice as likely to experience domestic violence and other forms of gender-based and sexual violence as non-disabled women, and are likely to experience abuse over a longer period of time. The limitations of the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on gender equality have been acknowledged, and commitments have been made to ensure that the sustainable development agenda that will replace them in 2015 builds a society where women are able to realize their full potential. Even though disability issues weren’t even addressed as MDGs, organizations and individuals are campaigning to ensure that they are no longer ignored.
Risna is a gender and disability activist based in Indonesia, one of five women with disabilities that development organization CBM interviewed ahead of International Women’s Day. Risna believes that: ‘Equality of women with disabilities should be reflected through their active participation and as role models in every stage of development [...] The participation and equal access for women with disabilities can significantly contribute to creating a better world and “social justice” in the post-2015 development framework.’
‘First of all, empowerment, covering areas such as self-awareness, self-confidence and participation, would improve the lives of women with disabilities’, says Gertrude, Social Inclusion Advisor for Sight Savers based in Ghana. ‘Secondly, access to quality services that incorporate diversity. And thirdly, access to justice, which includes decision-making and political participation.’