Women with Disabilities and Human Rights

All around the world, physical and mental barriers as well as marginalization and discrimination are challenges generally confronting persons living with disabilities. To a large extent, cultural and societal practices, deep rooted in patriarchy; in turn have negative effects on women. These challenges and practices create multiple inequalities, which are widened and sustained by societies. These are unequal treatments which put to test the human rights of women with disabilities.

In very many circumstances, factors such as nature of disability interfering with ability to communicate; poor educational background and low literacy; social and physical isolation in which individuals are made to live in ‘another world’ are strong background influences on the life of a disabled woman. Women with disabilities live on the brink of society and are particularly vulnerable. They are more exposed to violence, rape or sexual abuse. So glaringly, marginalization and discrimination are the ‘baptism of fire’ experiences of every disabled person especially the women. Paul Wolfowitz former President of World Bank pointed out that “people with disabilities are also people …….… and yet they are too often forgotten.” Marginalization and discrimination, which constitute a fair share of inequality, are indeed abuse of human rights.

 In Nigeria and other African countries, the take-off of multiple challenges facing women with disabilities is the lack of access to resources control and high level poverty. The World Bank estimates that people with disabilities make up around 20% of the poorest of the poor, which translates to approximately 260 million people with disabilities living in absolute poverty. In Nigeria where it is estimated that 60% of about 10 million people with disabilities are women, an average disabled woman hardly affords two square meals a day. Yet right to food is a basic human right and non-negotiable.

In many Nigerian homes, women and girls with disabilities are secluded by families for fear of stigmatization. These women and girls are denied freedom of movement and freedom of association – two basic rights. They are often used as domestic servants with responsibilities of doing all the house chores when other children are sent to school.

Beyioku-Alase, the founder of Brighter School for the Deaf, Lagos – a deaf woman and mother of a deaf son – expresses her concern “I want societies to discontinue using deaf persons as servants at homes.” This phenomenon is more challenging when the disabled member of the family is a woman – women are known to have places only in the home front.

It was on a Monday, 12pm Nigerian time. Chidiebere, a 15 year old ‘hard of speaking’ girl from Orlu is at home. She is ‘supposed’ to be washing clothes, cleaning the house and cooking food when her able – bodied siblings are all sent to school. A barking noise from Chidiebere’s house attracted the attention of passers – by. On stepping into the hut, Chidiebere was barking angrily and crying, while Cordelia her mother was raining abuses on her. Cordelia was casting blames on whoever that was responsible for the ‘curse’ on her family with a disabled daughter. Obviously Chidiebere was fed up with the daily domestic slavery; hence she was proclaiming her refusal to carry out her ‘normal’ duties. The mother saw her daughter’s resistance as abnormal and beat her mercilessly. On intervention, she said to me, “sister, I am fed up with this girl, she grows unbearable every day.”

A UNDP study says that “the global literacy rate is as low as one per cent for women with disabilities”. On enquiry why Chidiebere is not sent to school, Cordelia says, “which kind of school will she go? I troubled my husband before he allowed my 7-year old normal daughter to start school. My husband will never pay school fees for a dumb daughter. We don’t have to waste our limited resources on her.”

Though article 10 of the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child categorically enshrined the rights of a woman to education, the machineries to facilitate the giving of same right to women and girls with disabilities are hardly put in place in the local communities.

Women and girls in the shoes of Chidiebere are at greater risk of violence, abuse, maltreatment and exploitation– these are issues which negate human rights of individuals. It is really hard to reconcile the slogan ‘all human rights for all’ with what women with disabilities face both within and outside the homes in their various countries.

In the western world and some other countries, women rely on access to a range of methods such as voluntary sterilization to control child birth. Women with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to forced sterilizations, which are performed under the auspices of legitimate medical care. Sterilization performed on the consent of parents or care givers in the name of women and girls living with disabilities are rather promoting systemic prejudice and discrimination against the recipients. It denies them rights to experience their sexuality and rights to find and maintain families. States are comfortable with forced sterilizations even when the right to bodily integrity and the right of a woman to make her own reproductive choices are postulated in a good number of international human rights treaties and instruments including the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Property and / or land ownership by inheritance is a ‘no-go’ area for women. A woman can only own landed property if she has the money to buy and legalize her documents from the government. In most countries, she has to obtain the consent of her husband to do so. An average disabled woman in Nigeria belongs to the poorest of the poor group. She is unemployed and most likely she is into street begging. Women who live hand-to-mouth cannot afford to pay house rent, talk less of buying property. The right to shelter– very salient issue in the UN International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) — as basic as it is, is day-dreaming to women living with disabilities. They are denied rights of inheritance by cultures and societies.

In Nigeria, discrimination against women is heavily practiced. Women are seen and not heard.  They are not part of meetings where issues affecting their lives and those of their children are taken. Women have no rights to neither inherit property of their parents nor their husbands. In fact women are themselves properties of men hence a woman who lost her husband to death is to be inherited by her late husband’s brothers. Women with disabilities experience in multiple forms these discriminations of women.

According to a UNDP study “women and girls with disabilities experience double discrimination, which places them at higher risk of gender-based violence, sexual abuse, neglect, maltreatment and exploitation.” The consequences of living with physical or mental disabilities are particularly serious for women whose multiple forms of discrimination drastically lead to sustainable inequality. Sustainable inequality promotes the war on women and places women with disabilities at more disadvantageous positions. The stress of struggle for daily living hardly allows them think that they are born equal with other persons.

Worse still, some nation states have not adhered to calls to provide for enabling environment where women with disabilities can be protected and live free life. Where disabled women are denied the ‘protectionist approach’ to equality, equality violation becomes a threat to efforts put in place by treaty bodies to ensure human rights of women with disabilities in the communities. This limits the possibilities of women with disabilities enjoying their rights as human beings even when the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) says that all human beings are born equal.

The above background indicates that women with disabilities by and large, lack protection of the law. They are unlikely to obtain police intervention at events of any violence on their person. Of course, they are less likely to legal protection because they constitute the poorest of the poor group and cannot pay for the services of a lawyer or preventive care. Most of them who encounter violence and abusive treatments do not have a voice and access to tell out their experience.

The United Nations, recognizing that women and girls with disabilities are often at greater risk, both within and outside the home of violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, in 2007 passed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD). By passing the Convention, the UN is concerned that despite the various previous instruments and undertakings, persons with disabilities continue to face barriers as equal members of society and violations of their human rights in all parts of the world. Till date, 154 countries have signed the convention and 90 countries have signed the Optional protocol since their opening for signature. 126 countries have ratified the Convention whereas 76 countries have ratified the Protocol. Some countries that have signed and ratified both the Convention and the OP are yet to domesticate the convention. In such countries, women with disabilities have no legal standing in the struggle for their rights as human. They cannot question the local authorities for not domesticating the instrument willingly signed at the United Nations.

Until the world acknowledges that women with disabilities are entitled to rights as human, until the world listens to these women, the women will keep talking about it. All around the nation, all around the world, women with disabilities keep asking for their rights, not minding the embarrassing echoes from the four walls of our meeting rooms asking “what is wrong with women with disabilities?” The response simply is: nothing is wrong with women with disabilities. The wrong is with those who do not give equal place to the disabled women. What these women ask is: ‘ALL HUMAN RIGHTS FOR ALL.’

Celine Osukwu

Lagos, Nigeria