Women and girls with disabilities have much to contribute to progress inclusion for all

Shanta (on the right),18 years old, lives in Nepal and is affected by cerebral palsy. She and her mother Rupa are members of the Nepal Disabled Women's Association (a CBM partner). thanks to the NDWA Shanta can now attend school.

Rosangela Berman-Bieler, Chief of the UNICEF Disability section speaks to CBM about the opportunities and challenges in progressing the human rights of women and girls with disabilities.

You hold a key position in UNICEF and you are a woman with a disability, how important is it for women with disabilities to work in leadership positions?

I think the question is really what the difference experiences a human being can bring in general to leadership positions. The area of disability is so invisible and beyond that any content on inclusion is so difficult to pin down the exact meaning. When development actors talk about inclusion and the post 2015 process we need to pay attention to what people are referring to as inclusion. What we usually see if that disability is not there, it is acknowledged as an area to be considered but in reality there is a lack of action on how to address it. It just stays as one more area in a long list of pending issues.

So I think when women with disabilities start contributing in the field of development work, even in the context of the workplace, you change the dynamic and the environment and people start engaging and understanding inclusion from a practical perspective. We just had a meeting with women ambassadors, the International Disability Alliance (IDA) and women with disabilities from the UN System to discuss the inclusion of girls and women with disabilities in the Post-2015 framework. Having so many women in the room, even with not all of them familiarized with disability issues, it created an incredible sense of community, complicity and mutual support that only women can share at some point.  It made me recall my first international participation at a UN Experts’ meeting on Women with Disabilities in Vienna around 1990, where I represented Latin America. Many things happened since then and much more still has to be accomplished.

In the process of empowerment of women with disabilities, more opportunities will open up as the development agenda focuses more on inclusion.  It is important that in line with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CPRD) and its principles of nothing about us, without us, women with disabilities are able to gain access to participate in development. The development world really needs expertise on disabilityand now more and more people with disabilities and women with disabilities have this knowledge. It has to be much more than first person knowledge though, you need more than just the experience of living with a disability to work in development, and you also really need to understand development, what is relevant to development and how to work on development. This is an area where the job market for women with disabilities can open up and equally women with disabilities must invest and be ready to take the opportunity. I think it is a two way street. 

What in your opinion are the top three issues for women and girls with disabilities?

To pick just three is difficult. I would say access to education, of course access in general is important but access to education is crucial. Secondly protection from violence, abuse, and exploitation, and thirdly, access to participation. For young girls with disabilities, the empowerment and support from the family is critical so she can develop her self-esteem and overcome stigma and discrimination that unfortunately is still inevitable in every community in the world. For adolescent girls with disabilities, the whole lack of information on sexual and reproductive issues put them at risk and excludes them from society.

Do you think the voices of women and girls with disabilities are adequately represented in the disability rights movement and the women’s right movement?

These are the challenges we have, even after 30 years of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The women’s movement has not been really responsive on women with disabilities issues and in just a few cases there is representation or even mention of women with disabilities in gender discussions. As a result of continuous efforts and strong leadership by women with disabilities in key roles such as in IDA right now, visibility is increasing but there is still a long way to go.

Equally, in the disability movement, in very few places the voice of women with disabilities from a gender perspective is evident. What I mean by this is you may have a woman with a disability as president of a disability organisation but they may not have any gender perspective to their work. Also, within the disability movement, we are not ready yet for ensuring equal opportunities between men and women with disabilities. The discourse is not there. I think we still have a lot to do in both movements. It is also important to highlight that gender issues relate to women and men and they have to be addressed through this intersectional perspective. 

To speak a little about UNICEF and my work, our mandate is to ensure that the children rights agenda includes disabilities and that the disability rights’ agenda includes children.  If we think the voices of women with disabilities are not heard enough, the voices of girls with disabilities are definitely not heard. In the disability movement, adults with disabilities never mention children. This is left for parents and there is very little self-representation what keeps the voices of children absent. Adults with a disability were children once so it is fundamental that we offer our best advocacy skills to promote the rights of children and adults with disabilities. Adolescent girls, for instance, are invisible in every area, in every context of society. Adolescents are in such a critical moment of their lives with very little support or voice. We need to reach out to and empower them to be the future leaders and engaged citizens that an inclusive society requires. 

What is your wish list for women and girls with disabilities and the post 2015 agenda?

I wish what we have achieved until now in the current draft of goals remains. We didn’t get everything but we got a lot. We need visibility to disabilitiesDisaggregated data on disability is a must and to make sure that countries can monitor progress, we need good and measurable indicators. This is a huge challenge for the months and years to come. My wish list for the post-2015 is that by 2030 we have data and evidence about the advancements and contributions of girls and boys, women and men with disabilities in all areas of knowledge. That children with and without disabilities are learning, playing and growing together, safe from discrimination, abuse and violence, realizing their rights in a peaceful, inclusive and sustainable environment.


Rosangela Berman-Bieler is a Brazilian journalist. As a quadriplegic, Berman-Bieler has been a disability rights advocate for more than 35 years. Rosangela joined UNICEF in February 2011 as Senior Adviser on Children with Disabilities and is currently serving as Chief of the UNICEF Disability Section under the Gender, Rights and Civic Engagement, Program Division, in New York Headquarters.

Read more about her here