Interview with Ms. Catalina Devandas – UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities

The UN Special Rapporteur on Disability speaks to CBM about the opportunities and challenges in progressing the human rights of women and girls with disabilities.

What in your opinion are the top 3 human rights issues for women and girls with disabilities?

If I had to pick three, it would be violence, sexual and reproductive rights and poverty and exclusion. Each of the three is interrelated so it is very hard to make a differentiation between them. With respect to violence, I see three different clusters: indirect violence representing the total absence of women and girls with disabilities and what that means in terms of their absence from any public policy, from the community, how they are disregarded as individuals and left with no opportunity at all. Then there is direct violence, which is physical or psychological, and inside that you have the specific disability related violence; when the abuse is based in a women’s impairment. 

The second issue to highlight is the issue of sexual and reproductive rights, specifically the violation to the physical integrity of women with disabilities, including by subjecting them to force sterilisation. Also there are great obstacles for women to enjoy their rights to have a family and parenting and of course lack of access to services and information on sexual and reproductive rights.  

The third issue is poverty and exclusion. I believe that women and girls with disabilities are more vulnerable to becoming poor and are more excluded. This is the case for women and girls with disabilities in every population or group; for example, if you are a girl with a disability living in an indigenous community more than likely you will be excluded and poor.

How important is it that voices of women and girls with disabilities are represented in the disability rights movement and in the women’s rights movement?

This is very important. I believe that is strategically important to get involved in the women’s rights movement and the disability rights movement. Women and girls with disabilities are in a struggle for recognition. We got some recognition in the negotiation of the CRPD – so at least women with disabilities have been considered since the outset of the CRPD. This is a reflection of a bigger international movement, which is the women’s movement. 

The women’s movement worldwide has a lot of power and visibility. It is well positioned now. For example everything you do in the UN system has to be gender sensitive, including my mandate as UN special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities has to be gender sensitive. It would be very strategic if women with disabilities become visible within the women’s movement to increase our visibility in the national and international agendas promoting women’s rights. Also because we need to raise the awareness and understanding of the mainstream movement about our rights, sometimes even the actions taken by the women’s movement are not necessarily disability friendly so there is a need for us to highlight that and to work together so that our concerns, needs and demands are adequately taken into account in the mainstream women’s advocacy.

What do you think are the important first steps to ensure that women and girls with disabilities are included in human rights committees work?

I think they have an important role. It is my intention over the coming years to work with not only the CRPD committee but also the other human rights treaty bodies to include persons with disabilities in their work. We have the CRPD committee and the drafting of the general comment on Article 6. The women’s right committee (CEDAW) is also making progress and of course there is the children’s rights committee (CRC) and their responsibility for girls and boys with disabilities. 

The human rights treaty bodies are very important. First of we need to work with them to get them to acknowledge disability rights, never mind the rights of women with disabilities, so we have to make it an issue for the committees. Given that context, the issues that make women with disabilities more vulnerable to human rights violations are key. Also, as any other person with disability, women with disabilities are all around us, for example we are part of indigenous groups, we have different ethnicities, we are older women etc. We have to be included in all aspects related to human rights. 

If we get the treaty bodies to make progressive jurisprudence on the rights of persons with disabilities and on the rights of women with disabilities that will help a lot to the work on the ground. As this jurisprudence will guide countries on inclusion.

How important is working together on gender and disability?

We could start working together immediately on poverty reduction, inclusive development, political participation and participation in general of women and girls with disabilities. These areas are common and less conflictual and we can move on from there. 

As a woman with a disability, you hold a key position, as a leader in human rights, how important is that?

It is important, having women with disabilities working on development and human rights as it brings the visibility that we need and we need to be aware of that. When I first read this question, I was thinking of several stories which are still happening today. For example, I remember hearing of a project on income generation for persons with disabilities and because of budgetary cuts the project had to downsize, so it was decided to stop funding women with disabilities and just fund the men as they were the heads of the family and needed the opportunity to generate income. The same with respect to education, I remember a story about a brother and a sister with a visual impairment and the boy was sent to school and the girl stayed at home and never got to take up opportunities. The same with legal capacity, all the benefits are done in the way that men benefit, even men with disabilities. Unless women with disabilities are present fighting for inclusion as beneficiaries and main actors for change, the change will not happen. There needs to be role models for women with disabilitiesand also real participation. Participation brings change little by little. 

From a personal point of view, in everything I do even though I work at an international level on human rights, every time I work outside the disability community I come across the paternalistic attitude. There is the view that persons with disabilities are not capable and I have experienced that with regard to being a mother. Unless you are there saying these views are not acceptable, then it is difficult to make a difference. 

What would you like to see at the end of the post 2015 deliberations?

First of all, the references that already there should be kept. Both references to persons with disabilities on the one hand should be gender sensitive and references to gender must be disability sensitive. Whatever reference there is on women, when it goes to the level of disaggregated data and indictors it should include women and girls with disabilities and the same with disability disaggregated data it should be gender sensitive. If that does not happen we are left neglected and again we are absent and not able to take up opportunities. The main challenge is to get the visibility of women and girls with disabilities and this is a challenge as we are seen as yet another group among the list of other group and identities. That is difficult in a worldwide negotiation but there are possibilities. 

The biggest opportunity I see is that if we get to keep the references in, we are further than we were with the MDGs where we were absent. It is now our time to say that we also belong here and that our inclusion means that women with disabilities who are affected by poverty can be beneficiaries and be able to realise opportunities and increase their participation.


Ms. Catalina Devandas Aguilar (from Costa Rica) is a lawyer by training and human rights advocate, who has worked extensively on disability issues at the national, regional and international level. Before taking up her duties as the first Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities on 1 December 2014, she was working as a Program Officer for Strategic Partnerships with the Disability Rights Advocacy Fund, and was formerly with the United Nations Secretariat unit responsible for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and the World Bank as a consultant for the Disability and Inclusive Development team for Latin America and the Caribbean region.

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