When gender meets disability

The Retuna E Mpadas Women's Group, based in the Samburu region of Kenya, are a community development group to empower people to survive poverty.

Christin Lidzba, CBM’s Gender Advisor writes an interesting opinion piece on gender roles and gender norms.

Gender norms

Working on gender and disability has a lot to do with how we see ourselves and how others see us; it has to with fitting ‘a’ norm or not fitting ‘the’ norm. This counts for the issue of disability but it also counts for the issue of what it means to be a woman or a man with a disability. The very fact of a person having a disability causes his or her environment to question his masculinity or her femininity as it is defined by the cultural and religious context he or she is born into. This in short would be seen as a woman and a man with disability may not being perceived as “real” women and men according to local (classic) gender norms. These norms define how we are expected to look like (gendered beauty norms), behave like and be as ‘real’ women and men in each culture; with or without a disability.
When in the most classic of all images we imagine a woman or a man, we come up with words like: mother, wife, caregiver, breadwinner, protector, father, husband, etc. in short this is what we call (classic) Gender Roles. 

What contributes to gender inequality?

The work to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment (in mainstream development work and disability inclusive development work alike) starts right here:

  • Understanding local gender roles, norms and stereotypes and how for instance a woman with disabilities defines herself as a woman and what she aspires to be.
  • Understanding the relationships that a woman with disabilities has within her family, her community and how they are shaped by local norms and stereotypes in a way that they contribute to her (possibly) marginalized status.
  • Understanding community structures and systems i.e. family, community institutions such as Disabled Peoples Organisations and political institutions and how these are shaped by local gender roles and norms, how they reinforce them and with that contribute to the marginal role of women with disabilities within them.

A close look at these three factors will help us to understand what locally contributes to a situation of gender inequality in which any given woman with disabilities as well as any man with disabilities will find him or herself in and which vastly contributes to hers and his exclusion in any given society.

Mainstream development program work that aims to promote gender equality and women’s rights in development questions and challenges classic gender roles, norms and stereotypes and aims to promote changes on individual, family and community level. At the bare minimum such work tries to avoid the reinforcing of existing inequalities, by not reproducing and relying on existing gender roles, norms and stereotypes.

Gender and Disability: cross-cutting issues

And here we find ourselves in a bind when gender meets disability and disability meets gender:
While in our work on disability inclusive development we are yet to reach the point of a deeper analysis of the above mentioned elements; the choices many women and men with disabilities we are working with, are making; are very much shaped by wanting to adhere to local gender roles and norms rather than questioning and challenging them. Since this sounds so abstract it is best described with the words of my colleague Masika from DR Congo: “The girls and women with disabilities we are working with are not interested in an education for a job they say, they need the education so they can be eligible wives. You know, they want to be real women first.”

One could argue from a gender perspective, that the individual’s strategic choice made to achieve disability inclusion is to fit the local gender norm. Such a choice carries the belief that in order to be “Included” it is important to be a “real woman” and a “real man”. This amongst other things is what girls, boys, women and men with disabilities are made to believe, they are lacking by their family, peers and community. To try to be a “real” woman may indeed be a strategically effective individual choice that we cannot argue against in the absence of offering alternatives.

Let’s get ‘real’

However these are choices that also on an individual level reinforce gender inequality since ideas of “real” women and men at their core: shape inequality.

Arguably it is unlikely that a woman with disabilities in isolation might stand up and say “Why would I want to be a ‘real’, woman, if being a ‘real’ woman still means I am subordinate to ‘real’ men?!”;without paying a the high price of further exclusion.

However, on occasions such as the International Women’s Day we celebrate women and their empowerment and we call for global action to end gender inequality. Historically on this day we honour and celebrate the women that have had the courage to stand up about a century ago to challenge the gender roles and Norms of those times; women that have dared to stand up and ask “Who says that women cannot vote?!” And in the same fashion and spirit I dare say: It is about time that women with disabilities as a collective, organised in local and global disability movements, ask questions such as: “Why would we want to be a so called ‘real’ woman, if being a so called ‘real’ woman still means we are subordinate to ‘real’ men?! And who says we are not already real women, while we are as real as it gets?!”

And it is also about time that we as development workers support women and men with disabilities to critically ask themselves such questions. As well as asking us, how we with our work might be reinforcing and utilizing classic gender roles and gender norms and thus may without this being our intention contribute the stabilizing existing inequalities. It is about time that we ask how we in our work can change such roles and norms and actively promote gender equality. It is about time that gender truly meets disability.