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Invisibility of women and girls with disabilities

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Often, women with disabilities are invisible and marginalised in society, including among those promoting the rights of persons with disabilities, and those promoting gender equality and the advancement of women, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Ms Dunja Mijatović, noted in an address of Thursday.

The exclusion of women with disabilities from decision-making spaces has for a long time impoverished our societies, Ms Dunja Mijatović, added. It masks the root causes of the discrimination they face, allows the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes, both concerning gender and disability, and leads to innumerable human rights violations.

Violence against women and girls with disabilities

Increased risk of sexual violence and abuse is only one aspect among many that prevent women and girls with disabilities from enjoying a wide range of human rights on an equal basis with others. For a long time, women with disabilities, who make up an estimated one fifth of the world’s women, remained invisible, both because of their gender and their disabilities.

This invisibility explains the statistical evidence that they are in a disadvantaged position compared to both women without disabilities and men with disabilities. Regrettably, the protection of their human rights is not given the necessary attention from all policymakers and institutions, Ms Dunja Mijatović noted. Considerations about women’s rights are often excluded from disability-related laws, while gender equality legislation frequently fails to incorporate a disability dimension.

This situation is acknowledged in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), ratified by all Council of Europe member states but one (Liechtenstein). This Convention specifically dedicates an article to women with disabilities (Article 6), setting out the obligation of states to recognise that women and girls with disabilities are subject to multiple discrimination and to take measures to offset this discrimination, as well as to ensure the full development, advancement, and empowerment of women. 

In its general comment on Article 6, the treaty body of the CRPD sets out the many ways in which women with disabilities are specifically hindered from enjoying their human rights protected under different articles of the UN Convention. Many of these considerations also apply to the rights enshrined under the European Convention on Human Rights.

In addition to types of gender-based violence that affect all women and girls, disability-specific forms of violence perpetrated against women and girls with disabilities include, among others: the withdrawal of necessary supports to live independently, to communicate or to move around, for example by removing or controlling access to vital communication aids (such as hearing aids) or refusal to assist with communication; removal of accessibility devices and features, such as wheelchairs or ramps; as well as the refusal by caregivers to assist with daily activities, such as bathing, dressing, eating and menstrual management.  Other disability-specific forms of violence can include the harming of assistance animals and bullying, verbal abuse, and ridicule on the grounds of disability.

Women with disabilities are also too often subjected to sexual violence, including very often in institutions. Ms Dunja Mijatović stated: “As I highlighted on many occasions, institutional settings are breeding grounds for violence and abuse, including sexual violence, due to various factors such as geographic isolation, power asymmetries and the impossibility for victims to seek and obtain outside help, which all contribute to impunity for perpetrators.”

She added “This involves both interpersonal violence, but also often structural and institutional forms of violence. Personal stories of women, for example with intellectual disabilities, who live or survived living in institutions expose the many ways in which violence and abuse against them can be normalised and become structural.”

Sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls with disabilities

A particular form of violence specifically targeting women and girls with disabilities concerns involuntary sterilisation, contraception and abortion, as well as other medical procedures performed without the free and informed consent of the women concerned, despite the fact that such acts are specifically prohibited under the Council of Europe Convention on violence against women and domestic violence (the Istanbul
Convention) and the CRPD.

This issue is intimately linked to the question of legal capacity (download), a right enshrined in Article 12 of the CRPD and more often denied to women with disabilities than men with disabilities, Ms Dunja Mijatović stated. She added that frequently, the right to physical integrity of women with disabilities, in particular with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities, is violated as a result of substituted decision-making, where an appointed guardian or a judge is empowered to take life altering decisions, supposedly in the “best interests” of the woman and against her will and preferences.

Such practices are commonplace around Europe as can be seen in numerous concluding observations of the CRPD Committee and reports of the monitoring body of the Istanbul Convention (GREVIO), for example concerning Belgium, France, Serbia and Spain.

It is shocking that legislation in many European countries allows for forced sterilisation, contraception and abortion, considering that these practices are clearly based on eugenicist assumptions about the value of the lives of persons with disabilities or stereotypes concerning the capacity of persons with disabilities to be mothers, Ms Dunja Mijatović stated.

It is regrettable that states are still introducing such legislation, as for example in the Netherlands where a law introduced in 2020 allows for forced contraception, which perpetuates this discrimination and such stereotypes.

She therefore called on all member states to follow the example of Spain, which following the recommendations by GREVIO and the CRPD Committee, and after extensive consultations, abolished forced sterilisation, even with the prior approval of a judge, in 2020.

She concluded that she attaches great importance to the duty of member states to ensure the full enjoyment of women and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Women with disabilities in emergencies and conflict situations

Another area of concern which has unfortunately become even more pressing in Europe is the inclusion of women with disabilities in responses to emergencies and conflict situations.

As the war in Ukraine is raging and Europe is witnessing the unfolding of a humanitarian catastrophe, member states must do their utmost to ensure that humanitarian support also reaches women and girls with disabilities, who face additional barriers, including those affecting communication and mobility, in a situation where their support networks are disrupted and the accessibility infrastructure they rely on is being destroyed, Ms Dunja Mijatović stated.

She called on member states who are hosting those women and girls with disabilities who escaped Ukraine to be particularly attentive to their needs and avoid secondary victimisation, owing for example to inaccessible reception facilities which may further increase the risk of violence and abuse.

Participation and inclusion of women and girls with disabilities

Discrimination against women with disabilities is a pervasive problem, which is not limited to the issues mentioned above.

The Commissioner on Human Rights pointed out, that as in all areas concerning disability, the way forward must involve the full participation and involvement of women and girls with disabilities in policy and decision-making mechanisms and legislation affecting women and persons with disabilities, in accordance with the principle of “Nothing about us without us”. Member states need to make a lot of progress in this regard and go beyond tokenistic gestures which are not accompanied by long-term budgeting and planning.

She also sees de-institutionalisation and legal capacity reforms to eliminate all forms of substituted decision-making as crucial to improving the situation of women with disabilities and all the more reason to treat these issues as an absolute priority. 

She concluded that it is high time to put an end to this state of affairs and take a firm commitment to reverse the exclusion of women and girls with disabilities. The first step in this direction must be the acknowledgment of the untapped strength and resilience of women and girls with disabilities, so that they themselves can lead the way forward.

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