Protection of the rights of women with disabilities
By Kathambi Kinoti, Association for Women's Rights in Development, an international organization based in Canada (www.awid.org)
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted
last month. How does it address the needs of women?
The draft United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with
Disabilities was adopted last month after almost four years of negotiations. For many, an international treaty securing the rights of the
world's largest minority was long overdue.
The convention, which may come into force in 2007, departs from the common
conceptualization of disability as a medical or charity issue and treats
disability issues as human rights issues. This is what disabled people's
organizations (DPOs) have been advocating for years. Not everyone, however, was in agreement that an international convention is necessary to protect the rights of people with disabilities. Those against the formulation of a new convention were of the view that disability rights were adequately catered for under existing national and international legislation, and any additional rights guarantees if at all necessary could be added to existing international human rights conventions. The U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights reportedly said that such a global treaty was not necessary, and that countries should emulate the US model of non-discrimination laws.  Marta Russell however says that 'the recent record of the U.S. court system, Congress and many state legislatures is one that has consistently undermined' the rights of people with disabilities, with the 'business-friendly Supreme Court shrink[ing] the legal definition of disability to accommodate employers, instead of
employees with disabilities.'
 According to Carolyn Frohmader of Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA), the Australian government was at first reluctant to support a disability convention, but after intense lobbying by WWDA xand other DPOs, their government finally lent their support to the drafting of the convention.
In existing human rights treaties, people with disabilities are largely
unseen. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
against Women (CEDAW) for instance, does not explicitly mention women with
disabilities despite the fact that they are particularly vulnerable to
discrimination and abuse. A survey conducted in 2004 in Orissa India,
revealed that 'virtually all of the women and girls with disabilities were
beaten at home, 25 per cent of women with intellectual disabilities had
been raped and 6 per cent of disabled women had been forcibly
' Frohmader says that CEDAW does not acknowledge or respond
to the rights violations suffered by women with disabilities. The Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women recognizing that women with disabilities are not specifically addressed in CEDAW, made a recommendation that in their reports to the Committee, states indicate the progress made in ensuring that women with disabilities enjoy their human rights in full. However most states'reports still fail to adequately address the situation of women with disabilities.
The reporting mechanism under CEDAW and its Optional Protocol has not been
sufficient to serve women with disabilities, particularly due to the fact
that many countries have not signed the Optional Protocols that allow for
shadow reports by civil society organizations and for investigations into
cases of alleged rights violations.
Women's DPOs that contributed to the drafting of the Convention were keen
to ensure that a twin track approach be employed in addressing the
interests of women with disabilities;
1. The inclusion of a stand alone substantive article that recognizes that
women face aggravated discrimination due to their gender, disability and
other identities, and compels states to take all measures necessary to
ensure that they enjoy their human rights in full. This provision was
contentious from the very beginning. Frohmader says that originally the
Australian government was opposed to the inclusion of what is now article 6 of the Convention, arguing that the elimination of discrimination against women was already catered for by CEDAW and therefore it would be
duplication for special attention to be paid to women under the Convention
on the Rights of People with Disabilities. WWDA says that the stand alone
Focus on the needs and particular concerns of women with disabilities;
- Provide a basis for establishing and re-orienting delivery of services
and programs to disabled women;
- Identify policies and strategies which will provide a reference point for policy development and resource allocation;
- Provide clear rationale for the development of specific programs;
- Develop and maintain mechanisms which increase the participation and
representation of disabled women in all decision-making;
- Provide a basis for monitoring, evaluating and reporting progress.
 The inclusion of Article 6 of the Convention was one of the contentious issues that were open to discussion during the final session of the Ad Hoc Committee of the UN General Assembly that was to finalize and adopt the treaty. Women's DPOs were therefore happy to see it pass.
2. Mainstreaming of gender throughout the Convention was another demand
made by advocates for the rights of women with disabilities, and its
intention to do so is evident. The Convention uses 'he' and 'she' rather
than 'he' to represent 'she' as is the norm in many legal instruments that
claim that the male-centric language includes females. Article 8 requires
states to 'combat stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practices relating to persons with disabilities, including those based on sex and age, in all
areas of life.'
Article 16, which provides for freedom against exploitation, violence and
abuse, refers to the gender-based aspects of these violations. It however
fails to recognize that women are the primary victims. Frohmader also says
that the Convention should have explicitly addressed violations such as
female genital mutilation, forced sterilization, coercive abortion, female
infanticide and honour killing.
The Convention goes a long way in affirming the rights and dignity of
people with disabilities. The challenge will be in its implementation.
Already some states have shown reluctance to be party to the treaty. For
those who do sign it, there is no guarantee of their commitment to
implementing it. The track record of most states in honouring their
obligations under other treaties such as CEDAW indicates that there is
likely to be much work to be done by civil society, regional bodies and the UN to ensure that the Convention is actually implemented. Overarching all these considerations is the need for a systemic and societal shift in
attitudes towards people with disabilities so that they are not seen as a
burden or an appendage, but as an integral part of society.