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Celebrating International Women’s Day – the Voices of 5 Women with Disabilities

Collage of portraits of five women
© CBM/ Muhammad Abu Alghaib/ Silvia Quan
Interviewees From Left to Right - Gertrude Oforiwa Fefoeme, Risna Utami, Ola Abu Alghaib, Luisa Fenu & Silvia Quan

For International Women's Day 2014, CBM interviewed 5 women with disabilities from around the world to discuss their hopes and desires for the future.


The 2014 theme for International Women’s Day is ‘Inspiring Change’. As part of CBM’s celebration of International Women’s Day, CBM interviewed women with disabilities from five different regions in the world on their hopes and desires for the future. Five interview questions were put to each interviewee on a range of issues important to women rights and equality.

Our five interviewees are -
Risna Utami
Risna is a gender and disability activist. She is chair of the Indonesian National Consortium for Disability, a CBM partner organisation. She is also a grassroots disability activist. She is based in Indonesia.

Silvia Quan
Silvia Quan is a disability activist, she is passionate about women's rights and works in human rights. She is a member of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and is based in Guatemala.

Luisa Fenu
Luisa is a gender and disability activist and works with CBM as a Policy Officer at the EU Liaison Office.

Gertrude Oforiwa Fefoame
Gertrude is a gender and disability activist. She works with Sights Savers as a Social Inclusion Advisor and is based in Accra, Ghana.

Ola Abu Alghaib
Ola is an expert in disability, gender and development, from Ramallah in Palestine. Ola is currently studying a PhD in the UK.

CBM: Why are women’s rights important for you?

Ola: Women’s rights are important for me because I see myself first and foremost as a woman, not as a woman with disability and that’s my identify. Women’s rights are therefore of course important. Tracking the years of improvement of women’s rights in policy making in general, the advocacy on women’s rights is the only way we can reach more equal opportunities in the society.
Luisa: In general, women’s participation in society is essential. It brings a different perspective to society and has a positive impact in terms of improving and refreshing perspectives. Women in general are underestimated and particularly their capacities. Society is losing out by not including women. It’s a problem for women but also for society not to respect their rights.
Silvia: Generally, a huge gap exists between the situations that women face, in comparison to the situation that men face. This inequality is the result of the treatment of women, almost throughout the history of mankind, and to date, which has been motivated by the devaluation, denigration and finally, social and political oppression.
Risna: Women’s rights are the rights that cannot be taken away. These rights must be protected. Every woman has a right to expression without fear of being oppressed. Women in the world should be equal to express and to enjoy their rights in life.
Gertrude: Women’s rights are important to me, because I am a woman first and therefore the general discrimination that women face, I face that. Then I face additional discrimination because I am a women with a disability.

CBM: What is your vision of equality for women with disabilities?

Ola: My vision is to be treated as any other community member as a citizen and enjoy the same rights regardless of me having any impairments of difference in function.
Luisa: A world where women with disabilities may enjoy the same as other women, but also with other citizens in all aspects. It would improve the inclusiveness of our societies and improve diversity within our society.

Silvia: Women with disabilities require that conditions of equality be given through the equalisation of opportunities. This is a broader concept than equality and should be understood more as equity. Women with disabilities, even within the broader group of women, encounter severe disadvantages because of the few or non-existent conditions of physical accessibility, accessibility to information and communication, the limited access to education and basic health and rehabilitation services. In addition, the stigma that exists about women with disabilities does not affect women without disabilities, the perception that women with disabilities are economic and social burdens, and asexual, therefore makes them more likely to be victims of sexual violence.
Risna: Equality of women with disabilities should be reflected through their active participation and as role models in every stage of development, including the planning, budgeting and implementation of programmes and policies in development. The participation and equal access for women with disabilities can significantly contribute to create a better world and to create “social justice” in the post 2015 development framework
Gertrude: My vision is where women with disabilities have equal recognition and access to opportunities like all other citizens, particularly men. I say men because they have the better opportunities. My vision of equality is not just about equality for women as women are already discriminated but also equality between men and women. 

CBM: What would be the top three things you would wish for to improve the lives of women with disabilities

Ola: First of all, assurance of equal opportunities from governments. The more I am in the field and the more I am experiencing, the more I am convinced that if changes do not happen at policy level and systems, there will be no sustainability of any change that can contribute to real life access to women with disabilities. 

Secondly, I think that women with disabilities themselves need to be given more opportunities. First of all to have a better realisation about their rights, because this is still not the case. They are still often overwhelmed with their community traditions and culture, as well as misperceptions of their community. There is a need for a twin track approach with an equal focus on capacity building and awareness raising for a better understanding about their own position in their communities and even within the family. This is equally important. 

The third thing, which I think is equally important is the international community and particularly civil society, because they do, whether we like it or not, affect governments and international organisations. So if they give more attention and make sure that there is input of disability and gender in channels, support and programmes, I am sure that things will change.
Luisa: More empowerment of women with disabilities. Their views are taken more into consideration in decision making and political life, more access to quality and higher education to be able to claim their rights and access to good equality employments – economic empowerment.
Silva: First of all, full access to education (inclusive education) at all levels and formats. Secondly, educational, legal, administrative, and social measures, for the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls with disabilities, and mechanisms for their protection. Thirdly, physical, informational and communication barriers are removed, and to combat all forms of discrimination that limit the possibility of having a job or income, and achieving a decent standard of living.
Risna: Three key areas are important; Education as it supports the professional life/careers of women with disabilities; health as it supports women with disabilities' productivity and active participation both in the public and domestic sectors; and employment as it supports women with disabilities to actualise, to contribute in  professional decent work and to be independent financially.
Gertrude: First of all, empowerment, covering areas such as self-awareness, self-confidence and participation. Secondly, access to quality services that incorporates diversity, services that are broad and wide. The third one is access to justice, which includes empowerment, decision-making and political participation.

CBM: Why is it important that the mainstream women’s movement include women with disabilities

Ola: Well, we can’t argue against the importance of the women’s movement being inclusive of their own community members that is odd to even discuss it. 

But the reality on the grounds states the opposite. From my own experiences of working with programmes that supports women with disabilities, we really have struggled to be included in those movements. And I don’t think it is the fact that they don’t understand; because it is much easier for them and other actors to let go and consider that the responsibility is under the ‘disability arena’. It is not within the women’s specific vision for advocacy, it is not in the policy discussion. And even when it comes to policy-making, they don’t give any attention to women with disabilities. I don’t want to say that it is a complete failure, there are some good policies and practices, but in general there is almost a consensus that unless it is a requirement of a donor or a very, very strong women with disabilities’ movement, you don’t see any initiatives coming from the other side. 

I always use an example from Palestine where we called one women’s organisation asking how we could work together. She said: “We work with women but not with disabilities”. So here is surely also a hidden stigma, even in rich countries such as Europe. A woman with disability coming to study in Europe is often not considered to have succeeded due to her capacity and competence but maybe to fill the quota, which show a remaining charitable view on us. As a woman with a disability, you really have to show and gain the respect more than women without disability.
Luisa: Because if they are not including women with disabilities, they are simply neglecting the view of a huge minority of women. If the views of the women with disabilities are not included in the mainstream women’s right movement, then the women’s movement is failing to be inclusive.
Silvia: The claims and demands of the current women's movement cannot be legitimate if it does not include all the diversity of women, which includes women with disabilities. The feminist movement has identified the current disadvantages and inequalities that women face, which are due to a power structure and exclusion by social class, economics, ethnic or racial identity, gender, of course, but as of yet disability has not been included as a category of exclusion. However, it is necessary that women and feminists recognise the integration of women with disabilities within their demands and claims. This also means that achievements at the state level also include women with disabilities, recognising the serious disadvantages that they face, even compared to women without disabilities.
Risna: Women with disabilities play very important roles in both development issues and the women movement. Both these sectors will not work inclusively without mainstreaming women with disabilities. The reason is that women with disabilities are the forgotten population in the women’s movement and in development. If we talk about the discrimination of women with disabilities, they are three times more likely to be discriminated against than women without disabilities. It is because women with disabilities are female, most of them are poor (in terms of education, health, employment, information, rehabilitation, and so on) and also they are considered as “disabled” (meaning that women with disabilities are not capable to do the same as any other women without disabilities). Therefore, to mainstream women with disabilities into the women movement is a must and it should start from now on.
Gertrude: We (women with disabilities) are first and foremost women. As an activist on gender and disability, we started off not looking on disability first, we looked at ourselves as women. Recently, I sat in a meeting in New York and realised that while the women’s movement spoke about HIV/AIDS, indigenous populations, etc. They were not talking about women with disabilities. Women with disabilities make up each of these groups. If we are not adding women with disabilities into these groups, we will continue to discriminate.

CBM: What would you like to see in the new development goals that could make disabled women’s lives better?

Ola: I would like to see two things. Firstly, gender and women’s rights has to make sure to include women with disabilities. Secondly, I’d like to see a specific point around protection of women with disabilities and their full access, not only to traditional areas such as health, education and social welfare, but particularly to justice, social and political rights and protection from violence and general social protection mechanisms.
Luisa: I would like to see more empowerment of women with disabilities and that the views of women are taken into consideration. It would also be key that women with disabilities are granted leading positions to challenge stereotypes, show their value and change things internally to have an impact externally.
Silvia: The important thing is that each person is valued and respected regardless of her or his differences, so there must be many changes in social attitudes and perceptions, eliminating prejudice, stereotypes and stigma, which only can be achieved with measures involving all social institutions and the State.
Risna: The new development goals must ensure women with disabilities have full participation, equal position and accessibility becomes mainstreamed in every sector of development. Women with disabilities must be explicitly mentioned in the new development goals. We cannot tolerate if disability issues including women with disabilities are not mentioned. They need to be mainstreamed explicitly in the development framework. Also, there should be relevant indicators in every goal that mention and indicate the inter-link between development, women and disability rights clearly.
Gertrude: I would like to see the inclusion of women with disabilities within the goal on gender and across all of the other areas with clear targets and this must also be included in the monitoring.


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