As part of CBM’s celebration of International Women’s Day, we interviewed women and men with disabilities from different regions of the world to get their perspectives on gender equality, what it means for them and why it is important for disability-inclusive development.
Irene Ojiugo Patrick-Ogbogu, Executive Director, Disability Rights Advocacy Center, Nigeria.
Lars Bosselmann, Director of International Advocacy and Alliances at CBM, Belgium
Madezha Cepeda, who works in Peru and Latin America with grass-root organizations of women with disabilities
Abner Manaplaz, a disability activist from the Philippines
Maegan Shanks, who works with CBM as Learning Coordinator and is based in the US
Why is gender equality important for all people with disabilities?
Madezha: Gender equality is as important for people with disabilities as it is for other people. And the importance lies in the fact that if there is no real equality between women and men, there will be no equal opportunities nor equal possibilities to make decisions or to access positions of power.
Lars: In contrast to what many people would imagine, gender equality is indeed a central question for all people with disabilities, and not just for women. Addressing and overcoming gender gaps is probably the most powerful tool to strive for the realisation of rights for all members of society. Women with disabilities often face a multitude of barriers in society preventing them from achieving their full potential and from playing an equal role compared to men with disabilities. And most of the barriers are not specific to the situation of women with disabilities; they are rather an expression of injustice (e.g. prejudices, wrong conceptions about the potential of people, lack of knowledge about existing devices to facilitate the inclusion of people with disabilities and many more). So when challenging and removing those barriers through our advocacy work, we contribute to a fairer society for all.
Maegan: For persons with disabilities, there are challenges tied to the discrimination based on disability but the discrimination tied to gender roles adds another layer of barriers. When we advocate for the protection of rights of women affected by domestic violence, it opens the doors for us to advocate for the rights of women with disabilities that are at the most risk to be abused.
Abner: Of course it is important that there is equality between men and women in all aspects of life. When I say equality, what I believe is that there should be equality in terms of opportunity and that people are supported to be able to benefit from those opportunities. I have seen many times in the Philippines among the gender advocates, not only women with disabilities but mainstream gender advocates, where it appears to me that gender equality can lead to a competition and make statements that women are better than men. This is not what gender equality is. It is about having the same opportunity regardless of your gender. What I am witnessing here in the Philippines is that all people with disabilities are discriminated against, be that women or men with disabilities. Women with disabilities are becoming stronger in advocating for gender equality but only from the women’s side. So we need inclusion for all people with disabilities, and gender equality must be highlighted in the fight of inclusion.
What areas are you currently working on to promote gender equality?
Irene: Some of the key areas I am working on include; access to health focusing on promoting equal access to sexual and reproductive health services by women and girls with disabilities and people without disabilities; advocating and leading processes for the review of laws and policies to make them more favorable for persons with disabilities especially in the area of protection of the rights to health and equal access to social services for women and girls with disabilities in Nigeria; empowering/building the capacity of women with disabilities to become leaders, be more visible, challenge stereotypes, take ownership of their issues and take up leadership positions in social groups, religious groups, government, etc. thus creating a space for women with disabilities to be more involved in decision making at all levels; advocacy for equal and inclusive access to education, school enrollment, retention and completion for women and girls on an equal ratio with men and boys; increasing access to justice for persons with disabilities whose rights have been violated especially women and girls with disabilities who have experienced Gender Based Violence.
Poverty has been identified as a key issue for gender inequality. As long as a lot of women, especially women with disabilities are poor and totally dependent on men and also some (good paying) jobs are reserved for men due to gender stereotypes, gender inequality will continue to thrive. To address this, I engage in providing linkages between women/girls with disabilities and financial institutions that support small scale enterprises for access to start-up capital for their businesses or other Income Generating Activities.
Madezha: For many years now I have been involved in the process of empowerment of women with disabilities. Unless we reduce the significant effects of exclusion at the level of our self- perception, our self- concept and our self-worth, we will hardly be able to seize the opportunities should they arise. Women with disabilities are as capable as men in a similar situation. However, as it happens at the general level between women and men, in the world of people with disabilities, it is also women, who have fewer chances of education, work training and political participation.
Abner: I am not really focusing on gender equality work but of course I am always trying to be mindful when we do things in our work, we try to make a balance. Whenever possible we also challenge gender advocates to be more sensitive not only about women with disabilities but also men with disabilities. Particularly in the area of families, for example in the Philippines’, the laws favour women because there is no due process to give also an opportunity for men to provide his worth within the family and if a man has a disability this can be a further challenge.
How important is it for the voices of women with disabilities to be heard in the disability equality and gender equality movement?
Maegan: It is crucial for the voices of women with disabilities to be heard in the disability equality and gender equality movement! The disability equality and gender equality movements are accepted as separate movements but by them being separate, it excludes women with disabilities who identify with both movements. Each individual has multiple identities; it is almost impossible to single out one identity when multiple identities makes a person. There must be a deliberate intention to include cross-disabilities and gender intersectionalities.
Madezha: Until very recently, only men were in management positions in the organizations of people with disabilities. Nowadays, this situation is changing. Not only are there organizations of women with disabilities exclusively but as well in the mixed gender organizations of people with disabilities there are women in the positions of leadership. It means that we have taken a few steps forward, but there is still a need to change many women's authoritarian leadership style learned from men.
Lars: The voices of women with disabilities need to come out much louderin the broader strive for gender equality. Women with disabilities can contribute their stories to the movement which will help a great deal in understanding underlying reasons for marginalisation and exclusionfrom society. Equally important, women with disabilities can inspire other members of society/whether men or women/because they often had to overcome even more challenges than men with disabilities to fight for their rights.
As a woman with a disability what can you contribute to improving gender and disability equality?
Maegan: As a Deaf woman, I can raise awareness about the intersectionalities of gender and disability through my work as the Disability Inclusive Development Learning Coordinator for CBM. I will be working with CBM’s Senior Advisor for Disability and Gender Equality to explore best practices on the inclusion of disability inclusive development and gender equality.
Irene: Firstly, I can contribute my advocacy efforts to the government and society at large through various methods involving community dialogues, interpersonal discussions/education, media campaigns. Secondly, I can also get involved in empowering women for leadership and self-reliance through leadership trainings, role modeling and involvement as active participants and/or co-facilitators in my programs. Thirdly, I can contribute my mobilization skills in coordinating and uniting women with disabilities all over the country and even regionally to speak with one voice and achieve favorable results in their advocacy efforts for gender equality.
Madezha: In principle, living by myself and interacting with my family on a daily basis and with people outside, acting respectfully and requiring others to be respectful of the equality between women and men, with or without disabilities. I also take every opportunity presented to me to report on the rights approach in relation to people with disabilities.
What role can men with disabilities contribute to gender equality?
Lars: Far too often, the critical matter of gender equality is understood or rather interpreted as being mainly of interest to women/women with disabilities. While strengthening the women's rights movement is critical to achieving gender equality, men have to be part of that change agenda,in order to succeed. At the end of the day, it is about creating a critical/and very often difficult dialogue to challenge existing structures, attitudes and stereotypes that often lead to marginalisation and multiple discrimination of women with disabilities. So to start with, men have to be open and supportive to having that critical dialogue, acknowledging that their role and power will be often questioned and challenged. During the open dialogue, it is also an important role for men with disabilities to follow the advice by women on when they should not be part of the discussion: For example, when women with disabilities want to address sensitive issues such as their sexual life and wish to have space to discuss amongst women, that space has to be there.
Madezha: Men with disabilities can hardly contribute to gender equality if they do not know and do not associate themselves with the gender perspective. It is a challenge to move towards this goal and it could be undertaken by women with disabilities thus achieving a higher level of empowerment.
Abner: I think men can raise awareness about the values and the virtue of the person rather than the traditional way that we view men and women. Men can challenge the notions that leads to competition that only aggravates the tension between men and women. For me I truly believe it is not about competition, as people have different capacities and skills, so it should never be an either/ or – that women are better than men, or that men are better than women. How gender equality is currently framed in this way, needs to be challenged. We should be measured by our skills and our capacities and talents not our gender alone.
Maegan: Men with disabilities can use their privileges and identities as men with disabilities to work alongside women with disabilities to bring attention to and provide a platform (that may have intentionally or unintentionally excluded women) for women with disabilities to have a voice.
Thanks everyone for your thoughtful contributions.