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Women and Girls with Disabilities

Women and Girls with Disabilities

Collectively, people with disabilities face many barriers in daily living and are often discriminated against. In particular, women and girls with disabilities (WGD) face greater discrimination and unequal treatment than men and boys with disabilities because of their gender and disability.

Discrimination and inequality experienced by women and girls with disabilities are further intensified by other drivers of exclusion, i.e., race, indigenous, national or social origin, sexual orientation, refugee, migrant or asylum seeker status, religion and political opinion.

Belonging to multiple marginalized groups puts women at even more disadvantage. Women with disabilities have to fight sexism AND ableism. Women of color with disabilities add racism to that list. Women of age add ageism to that list.

- Sheri Byrne-Haber, 2020

The World Health Survey estimated that the rate of disability is 60% higher among women than men. However, the rights of women and girls with disabilities are often invisible and hidden, even within the mainstream disability discourse and community of persons with disabilities.

Women and girls with disabilities are at greater risk of being vulnerable and excluded than others in the following aspects:

  • Gender-based violence
  • Education
  • Access to information
  • Employment
  • Health care
  • Sexual and reproductive health rights
  • Financial independence
  • Access to justice
  • Access to social protection
  • Independent living
  • Participation in community, culture, leisure, recreation and sports activities
  • Political participation
  • Decision-making processes

The situation of women and girls with disabilities in Malaysia is similar to reports from all around the world. Unfortunately, there is a lack of gender-disability disaggregated data in the country to understand the true impact of discrimination against women and girls with disabilties in Malaysia.

Gender-based Violence

Trigger warning: mentions of physical violence, sexual violence, domestic violence, abuse

UNFPA’s global study reveals that women and girls with disabilities face up to 10 times more risk of gender-based violence (GBV) than those without disabilities.

Gender-based violence is any act of violence against a person or group based on their gender that is likely to result in physical, sexual, psychological, and economic harm and abuse. Although GBV can happen to anyone, it most frequently happens to women and girls, and gender non-conforming individuals.

Examples of GBV commonly experienced by all women and girls around the world are domestic violence, intimate partner violence, sexual harassment, assault and abuse, female genital mutilation, forced marriage and human trafficking.

Besides the common forms of GBV, women and girls with disabilities experience unique forms of GBV. Some forms of violence experienced by women and girls with disabilities have not been recognised as GBV as a result of disability discrimination, such as:

  • Abuse by a support person, intimate partner or family member,
  • Denial of necessities like food, money, toileting support.
  • Withholding of medication or an assistive device,
  • Social isolation,
  • Forced sterilisation and contraceptive use,
  • Denial of access to reproductive healthcare, and
  • Administration of electric shock treatment.

Although women and girls with disabilities are at greater risk of experiencing violence and abuse, they are much less likely to obtain necessary help in comparison to non-disabled women and girls and men and boys with disabilities. This is because women and girls with disabilities are more likely to have lower literacy skills and educational achievement, lower employment success, lack of financial independence, and lower social success due to systemic discrimination against them.

Unequal Access to Education

Girls with disabilities are less likely to complete primary school education than boys with disabilities and girls without disabilities. They are also less likely than others to complete secondary education and/or transition into tertiary education.

Harmful stereotypes and prejudice about the capabilities and potential of girls and women with disabilities to learn contributes to:

  • Low enrolment of girls in formal education,
  • Lack of opportunities, resources and funding for women with disabilities to complete tertiary education,
  • Low expectations towards women and girls with disabilities in educational attainment,
  • Limited provision of reasonable accommodation to women and girls with disabilities to enable learning.

Girls with disabilities also experience increased rates of bullying and harassment by their peers based on their disability and gender. This negatively impacts their mental health and academic learning. Some girls with disabilities may also stop going to school to avoid such negative social emotional interactions in school.

Another barrier to accessing education for girls with disabilities is the lack of support and resources to manage menstruation. Some schools may not have hygienic and accessible toilets for girls with disabilities, and they may be absent from school when they are menstruating. Also, many schools lack the resources and willingness to provide personal assistance to girls with disabilities to help them with toileting.

Access to Information

Many women and girls with disabilities do not have access to information, which hinders their autonomy in their day-to-day living, and in some cases, endanger their safety. Women and girls with disabilities are often excluded from obtaining important information, such as their rights to bodily autonomy, prevention of gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health and rights, self-advocacy, legal rights and processes, opportunities for employment, and disability aid.

One of the main barriers in accessing information is poor literacy skills stemming from unequal access to education. Also, women and girls with disabilities are more likely to have no or limited access to digital devices and assistive technology that is crucial to support their access to information.

The other main reason that women and girls with disabilities are often excluded from the dissemination of important information is the lack of accessible communication of information. Accessible formats to disseminate information include:

  • Braille,
  • Sign language (Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia for Malaysian Deaf persons),
  • Easy read format,
  • Closed caption or subtitles in videos,
  • Audio format,
  • Infographics with plain language, and
  • Image descriptions or alt-text for images.

Health Care

Women with disabilities are more likely to have unmet healthcare needs because they could not afford the cost of healthcare and the cost of medicine. Hence, they have poorer health outcomes than women without disabilities.

Women with disabilities experience unique barriers to accessing healthcare in comparison to men with disabilities and women without disabilities. They are less likely to receive regular preventive screening services, such as screening tests for cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer, breast cancer and cervical cancer.

Compared to women without disabilities, pregnant women with disabilities experience increased barriers to accessing maternal care services. They may receive less adequate prenatal care and have higher risk for pregnancy and birth complications.

Women with disabilities are also less likely to receive education or counselling for health-promoting behaviours such as stress management, healthy eating habits, physical exercise and managing medication. Even when they do, the information and strategies provided are not sensitive to their specific disability needs.

Women with disabilities, especially intellectual disabilities, face barriers in making informed decisions regarding their health. The barriers include:

  • Not given enough information, choices, and time to make a decision,
  • Feeling pressured to make a decision,
  • Being ignored by health-care professionals when they indicate their preferences for needed health care services,
  • Health-care professionals seeking consult from their families or spouses regarding treatment and medication decisions, and
  • The misperception that they are not able to, or have no right to, make decisions about their own body and lifestyle, which can lead to their families or caregivers being controlling of their health and lifestyle decisions.

Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

Women and girls with disabilities have the same sexual and reproductive health (SRH) needs and rights as women and girls without disabilities.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights mean that women and girls have the freedom and entitlement to:

  • bodily autonomy,
  • having safe relationships,
  • having safe sex that they enjoy,
  • being free from sexual violence and coercion,
  • using contraception,
  • getting pregnant and having the necessary support for safe pregnancy, and
  • having information about prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted disease.

Unfortunately, women and girls with disabilities face widespread stigma and discrimination from majority of the society. This prevents them obtaining information, health care, and services to ensure that their sexual and reproductive health needs are met. The stigma and discrimination are heightened for women and girls with multiple disabilities, intellectual disabilities, psychosocial disabilities, and those who are deaf, deaf-blind or autistic.

 The common misconceptions about women and girls with disabilities include:

  • They are not sexually active, not interested in sex and do not desire to be in an intimate relationship. Or that they cannot control their sexual urges.
  • They cannot make decisions about their own body and sexual and reproductive lives.
  • They should not get married and have children.
  • They are not capable of parenting children.
  • They are not attractive or worthy because of their disability.
  • They do not need to learn about their own sexuality and what is good and safe.

Consequently, women and girls with disabilities are denied information about sexual and reproductive health. They are often excluded from comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education programmes and family planning counselling. The misconceptions also cause women and girls with disabilities to be at a greater risk of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

Women and girls with disabilities around the world are subjected to forced sterilisation, particularly those with intellectual disability. Sterilisation means having a medical procedure to make it impossible for a person to have children. The main factors that women and girls with disabilities are forced to sterilised are prevention of pregnancy and menstruation elimination.

Women and girls with disabilities are also subjected to forced abortion. Both forced sterilisation and forced abortion can stem from misconceptions of and discrimination against their parenting abilities. Forced abortion also have roots in eugenics-based concerns that women and girls with disabilities will give birth to a child with disabilities.

Employment

Women with disabilities are two times as likely to be unemployed than men without disabilities. Even when they are employed, women with disabilities receive lower wages than men with disabilities. Due to lower rates of post-secondary education, they are also more likely to be in blue collar-jobs.

Women with disabilities also experience heightened discrimination in the workplace. They are more likely to be interrupted and questioned for their judgement in comparison to other women. Women with disabilities are also more likely to hear that they are overreacting and too emotional.

Women with disabilities also face unequal career advancement opportunities. They are less likely to be offered salary increment, promotion and training. When women with disabilities request for reasonable accommodation, their request are often denied and questioned. In comparison to other women, women with disabilities are also more likely to be judged for taking up the offer to work flexible hours and working remotely.

Financial Independence and Financial Autonomy

Women with disabilities are less likely to be financially independent than other women. They are more likely to have difficulty covering living expenses, paying bills, including health care expenses. This makes it harder for them to live independently or own a house. Women with disabilities are also less likely to have sufficient funds for emergency situations.

Lower levels of education for women and girls with disabilities leads to many of them being unemployed or working in low paying jobs. The high cost of health care is also a barrier to achieving financial independence for women with disabilities.

Many women and girls with disabilities also have their rights to financial autonomy taken away from them because they are seen as dependent based on their gender and disability. Financial autonomy means a person can decide what to do with the money that she/he has.

Women and girls with disabilities are less likely to manage their own money and have access to bank accounts and emergency funds. They are also less likely to have access to disability financial aids due to inaccessible dissemination of information.

Financial education programmes to empower women are also less likely to reach women with disabilities. Many of those who provide financial literacy programmes are not sensitive to the situation of women with disabilities, and have yet to be equipped with the capacity to provide disability-sensitive and accessible programmes to women with disabilities.

Access to Justice

Women and girls with disabilities are excluded from legal protection at a much higher rate compared to women without disabilities and men with disabilities. Women and girls with disabilities are also less likely to report being victims of violence.

Even when they could access the justice system, women and girls with disabilities are more likely to have their credibility questioned because of double discrimination due to their disability and gender.

Barriers to accessing justice for women and girls with disabilities include, but are not limited to:

  • laws and policies that neglects to protect women and girls with disabilities against specific rights violations, such as domestic violence, sexual harassment, child marriage, forced sterilisation and legal capacity;
  • lack of education targeted at women and girls with disabilities to promote understanding of their rights and how the legal system works;
  • lack of provision of sign language interpreters or communication aids throughout the justice system for those who communicate differently;
  • inaccessible buildings, such as police departments, witness stands, and legal aid offices
  • inaccessible transportation services to access the judiciary system or legal aid services;
  • lack of disability-sensitive and trauma-sensitive education for first responders in how to respond to and support women and girls with disabilities who experienced violence. First responders include police officers, healthcare professionals, and helpline support workers;
  • fear of stigma and intensified threats to their safety if they choose to report crimes;
  • being unable to afford the costs associated with accessing justice due to poverty and lack of financial autonomy.

Access to justice for women and girls with disabilities is intertwined with other fundamental rights, which include:

  • right to access information,
  • right to communication,
  • right to education,
  • right to employment,
  • right to health,
  • right to autonomy, including bodily autonomy and financial autonomy,
  • right to accessibility, including built environment, transportation, and digital accessibility,
  • right to independent living,
  • right to social protection, and
  • right to social and political participation.

If the rights mentioned above are not upheld at the same time, access to justice for women and girls with disabilities will not be effectively realised.

Resources

*Note: Resources linked are in English and pdf or webpage format, unless stated otherwise.

Situation of WGD

Facts and figures: Women and girls with disabilities by UN Women

Women and girls with disabilities by UN Women

 

Violence against WGD

Our Rights, Right Now Toolkit on improving response to sexual violence against women with disabilities by Illinois Imagines

Fact Sheet on Women with Disabilities and Violence by DAWN Canada

Violence Against Women with Disabilities by Stop Violence Against Women

Gender-based violence among people with disabilities is a neglected public health topic by Fredinah Namatovu, Raman Preet, & Isabel Goicolea

 

Education of WGD

The Right to Education for Women and Girls with Disabilities by Women Enabled International

Girls with Disabilities and the Subsequent Barriers to Education by Lena Riebl in Borgen Magazine

 

Employment of Women with Disabilities

Women in the Workplace: Women with Disabilities by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company

Disability Discrimination in the Workplace by Cheryl for Women With Disabilities Australia’s blog

Types of Discrimination Women with Disabilities Face While Looking for Work by Sheri Byrne-Haber in Medium

Submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces by Women with Disabilities Victoria

 

Access to Healthcare for Women with Disabilities

Barriers in access to healthcare for women with disabilities: a systematic review in qualitative studies by Behzad Karami Matin, Heather J. Williamson, Ali Kazemi Karyani, Satar Rezaei, Moslem Soofi and Shahin Soltani in BMC Women’s Health

Women with disabilities at significantly higher risk for maternal outcomes by Maria Marabito in Healio

 

Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of WGD

Report on sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and young women with disabilities (easy read version available) by UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities

Reproductive Rights and Women with Disabilities: A Human Rights Framework by Center for Reproductive Rights

Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Women and Girls with Disabilities by Women Enabled International

Take Charge! A Reproductive Health Guide for Women with Disabilities by The Empowered Fe Fes

 

Access to Justice

Access to Justice for Women and Girls with Disabilities by Women Enabled International

Women, disability and violence: Barriers to accessing justice: Final Report by JaneMaree Maher, et al. (Easy English and accessible word files available)

Empowering the Voices of Women and Girls with Disabilities Towards a Just Society by Disability Rights Fund

Access to Justice for Women and Girls with Disabilities by Terre Des Hommes Foundation