Three Paths to Empowering Women and Girls with Disability

Women and girls with a disability face unique challenges. Photo: ADB
Women and girls with a disability face unique challenges. Photo: ADB

By Prabhjot R. Khan, Suzette Mitchell

Women and girls with disabilities experience gender inequality, social exclusion, discrimination, and violence in different ways. Development strategies, formulated with their full participation and consultation, are needed.

Around 19% of women globally, and 22% of women in lower-income countries, have a disability compared to 12% of men. Yet women and girls with disabilities have largely remained invisible in development projects and policies. They face similar forms of discrimination and social disadvantage as their male counterparts and women and girls without disabilities.

However, when the impacts of gender inequality and disability exclusion are combined, women and girls with disabilities face compounded forms of exclusion, driven by discrimination, and experience stigma due to social norms. 

 Women and girls with disabilities suffer lower levels of education with triple the illiteracy rate of men with disabilities. They are more likely to experience poverty and suffer from hunger, malnutrition, and violence.

Moreover, there is a pervasive and harmful perception that women and girls with disabilities are “unfit for parenthood,” which exposes them to a higher likelihood of forced or involuntary sterilization.

The varied forms of disability – physical, sensory, cognitive and psychosocial – create different barriers for women and girls. Although they all face higher rates of violence, there is evidence that women and girls with cognitive impairments experience the highest rates of intimate partner violence, followed by those with psychosocial impairments, sensory impairments, and then those with physical disabilities. Girls with cognitive disorders may also be targeted for trafficking in sexual exploitation and begging. 

Psychosocial and physical disabilities can also result from the impacts of gender discrimination, as well as the intersection of gender and other forms of discrimination. This includes discrimination experienced by women and girls of various races and ethnicities, as well as those belonging to indigenous groups, lower castes, indigenous tribes, and individuals with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, expressions, and sex characteristics, among others.

As women with disabilities are not a homogenous group, strategies need to consider the diversity that exists within their identities, culture and forms of disability.

 Empowering women and girls with disabilities means making their participation in the programs that affect them non-negotiable. Understanding there is no “one size fits all” approach is the first step to ensure no-one is left behind in the sustainable development of Asia and the Pacific.

In particularly, action needs to be taken to address the needs, concerns, and empowerment of women and girls with disabilities in the infrastructure sector (water, sanitation, and hygiene, urban development, and transport), and social sector (education, health, and social protection).

Empowering women and girls with disabilities means making their participation in the programs that affect them non-negotiable.

The first step that should be consulting women with disabilities in line with the approach, “nothing about us without us”.  This can be done through partnerships with local organizations of disabled persons including with women’s groups where women with disabilities take on leadership and decision-making roles. 

Second, the collection and use of data on women and girls with disability is crucial. Using the transport sector as an example, some practical solutions include the development of baseline studies or assessments to understand and address the transport needs of women and girls with disabilities including their user patterns and satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with services.

 Providing quiet, safe, and secure spaces away from congested areas in transport terminals benefits women and girls with cognitive disabilities. The inclusion of sensory rooms and spaces for those with cognitive impairments in terminals and airports are among the many innovative solutions to address their transport needs.

Third, women with disabilities should play key roles in the transport sector, such as access and liaison officers for all people with disabilities in transport hubs and ensuring their inclusion in members of user committees. Women with disabilities can also be provided with priority and reduced rate spaces for entrepreneurial activities at transport hubs close to accessible toilets and security.

 The empowerment of women and girls with disabilities is a critical aspect of achieving sustainable development and social equity. We need to commit to policies and actions that work toward a future where no one is left behind, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized among us.