Rama Dhakal will soon be attending the 62nd CSW with CBM’s support. Rama brings a wealth of experience in the issues facing women and girls with disabilities in the Asia-Pacific region and has worked for over 20 years to promote women’s rights and those of women with disabilities in Nepal and the region. Recently Rama has been working on the submission of a Supplementary Report on SHRH to the UN. We take this opportunity to speak with Rama on her work.
I have worked in the area of people with disabilities since 1993. We struggled a lot within the National Federation of the Disabled because most of the board members were male and it was very hard to sensitise the board on the issues of women with disabilities. Because of this struggle, in 1998, we also formed an organisation called the Nepal Disabled Women Association. It was a self-help organisation and women with disabilities led the whole board. I was the founder and chair of this organisation. We started a project especially for the empowerment of women with disabilities that went from national, regional, district right through to village level. As nobody was talking about disability, it was very difficult to start raising these issues. If families had a child with a disability it was like sin for them. For women with disabilities there was nothing and there were not any provision in laws and policy for women with disabilities. So we started to lobby and advocate with the DPOs and the government to amend policies and support meaningful participation of women with disabilities in decision-making.
In the early years, we started with a skills development training project from the government and also found some regular funding support from another organisation. Being a member organisation of the National Federation of the Disabled, Nepal, we sometimes organised demonstrations and sit-in protests to meet the demands of people with disabilities. We also tried to pressure the government so they would implement the laws and policy relating to people with disabilities. Gradually people with disabilities were becoming more visible…when we had a second demonstration many people with disabilities came to claim their rights and in some of the districts people with disabilities led the demonstrations. After that the Nepalese government developed an inclusion policy as everyone was talking about their identity. Mainstream organisations started to talk about disability, so did women’s groups, policy-makers. Government of Nepal amended the civil code and there is now the reservation for women…but not for women with disabilities.
Tell us about the work you’ve done in Nepal over the years
Our main areas of focus have been advocacy to government, strengthening organisations and supporting their capacity. We also realised livelihood programs were crucial to help support women with disabilities to become financially independent. This is very important for women with disabilities so they can have money to go to trainings and develop their leadership skills, raise their voice more.
What is it that drew you to advocating for sexual and reproductive health rights?
I’ve been working with Disabled People’s Organisations for 22 years. We work a lot on accessibility, and while there is a committee that I’m part of for women with physical disabilities we actually to connect with all women with disabilities. We pay a lot of attention to services and have been lobbying for accessible hospitals for many years. The thing is that when you say ‘accessible hospitals’ people might think of ramps but do they think about the needs of, for example, pregnant women with disabilities? If you go to the hospital in labour there is no labour bed suitable for women with disabilities and the doctors aren’t sensitised.
So this is why we recently submitted the supplementary report on sexual and reproductive health rights of women with disabilities to the UN. The UNCRPD ensures health rights but often this is spoken about in general terms. We are trying to focus on sexual and reproductive health rights because often these are forgotten about for women with disabilities. This is because there are so many assumptions, people think women with disabilities don’t count as human beings, they think they are asexual or they think that if a women with disabilities marries a men with a disability they will have a child with a disability. There are a lot of misconceptions so that’s why we are working in this field.
And nowadays we have the SDGs that also talks about health and ‘no one left behind’. If you compare with others the most left behind people are people with disabilities, women with disabilities, children with disabilities. We are hoping that this supplementary report will lead to some good recommendations made for the government to implement, so we can change this.
What are some of the other big issues faced by women and girls with disabilities in Nepal?
Education is also a very big thing for women with disabilities. Parents think“Oh, why should I send a girl child to school, because she will stay at home and nobody will come to her for the marriage?”, so they don’t send the girl with a disability to school. But a boy child with a disability - they will carry them to school because in the culture here they believe they will earn money and they feel education is very important to empower them.
Livelihoods are also so important for women with disabilities. If they can join livelihood projects or similar activities and join a [self-help] group they can have some little independence, not so much but even a small amount makes a difference and is really very critical for them.
Because sometimes what happens is if she has education but has some leadership skills she can be involved in some DPOs and really good advocacy. And takes some responsibility in the organisation. Another thing is
Also leadership skills, like exposure visits and training, are important for political participation. So important. Myself personally I was not so much educated but through development of my leadership skills, I was able to coordinate the Women’s Association. However it is still very hard for men to understand when women get a good position so that is why we need to struggle together to share the power. That’s with the exception of treasurer because in Nepal they think women are good at handling the money! But there should be more women in other leadership positions so they can contribute to the country, contribute to the movement. Maybe there are 10 women with disabilities in leadership positions in DPOs who can be count in the finger It needs to be not only women with disabilities talking about their own issues but also other women’s orgs and DPOs need to talk about these issues too. So nowadays we talk to the mainstream organisations, so that they will be a little bit sensitised.
How have you collaborated with CBM, how has CBM supported you and your work with women and girls with disabilities in Nepal?
I came across CBM when I worked at the Nepal Disabled Women’s Association – we got support for a project for empowering girls and women with disabilities. It was around education. We noticed that boys with disabilities were still going to school. So we started going to homes of girls with disabilities and asking “Why you don’t send girl child to school?” CBM’s support meant we were able to go to community level, not only district. Which means the real beneficiaries are girls with disabilities as we are going to individual houses, talking with families, finding out the situation and what needs they have that need supporting.
CBM has also supported the advocacy work of DPOs - we work with them and other partners so we can come together on these issues. I attended DID and gender workshops with CBM in the Philippines in 2017 and the AWIDFeminist Futures International Forum in Brazil 2016.Participating in these events really helped me grow my confidence to put forward my issues. It was a really good thing to meet with donors, link with government and for the first time talk with them about disability at the grassroots. From there I supported some work looking at SRHR in Vietnam, and attended state party meetings in the US.
What are the challenges for women with disabilities in accessing/participating in the broader disability and women’s movements?
In fact, the main challenge is the patriarchy! Men with disabilities do not want to give up their positions to women with disabilities. Getting the chance to go abroad is also competitive; often the man ends up going. On a practical levelwe don’t even know how many women with disabilities are working in the movement.If we could have a roster so that we knew everyone that would be helpful to gather together.
Also most of our issues are not in the mainstream women’s movement, and women with these organisations forget us most of the time. Another challenge is financial support for women with disabilities; the movement does not receive much funding.
How do we make lasting change for promoting the rights of women and girls with disabilities?
We have to do the advocacy to not only to government, for the mainstreaming our issues, other organisations and many other orgs working with women’s groups and so we need to get them sensitised. And of course with the government the laws and everything but implementation part is very weak. At the same time we have to be a little bit strategic getting DPOs and government to work together. For example thegovernment has a steering committee on ‘education for all’ and they have government people and as well as DPOs on board. These kinds of coordination committees are very helpful to make lasting change.
Also sometimes we have to give direct support to the girl child so they can start to think, “I can do it, why not?” Give them the courage to walk, to stand. Sometimes the basics like giving a scholarship and some clothes - sometimes that type of help also makes a big difference in their lives.