Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views • Issue no. 15 September-October 2002

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The Triple Oppression: Disability, Race and Gender
By Charlotte Vuyiswa McClain, Commissioner, South African Human Rights Commission, (cmcclain@sahrc.org.za)

The UN and disability, a 50 year summary
In the 1940's and 1950's, the United Nations focused on promoting the rights of persons with physical disabilities through a range of social and welfare approaches. In the 1960's, initiatives within the disability community, coupled with the adoption of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [1] and its sister instrument the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [2], resulted in a fundamental revaluation of the rights of individuals with disabilities within disability politics.

In the 1970's,the growing international concern with human rights for persons with disabilities was specifically addressed by the General Assembly in the Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons [3], the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons and by proclaiming 1981 as the International Year for Disabled Persons [4].

The human rights of persons with disabilities became an important part of the international policy agenda in the 1980s. The World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons was adopted by the General Assembly at its thirty-seventh session in 1982. The World Programme of Action is a comprehensive global strategy that utilitizes "equalization of opportunities" as its guiding principle for the achievement of full participation of persons with disabilities, on the basis of equality, in all aspects of social and economic life and development. The World Programme transformed the disability issue from a "social welfare" issue to that of integrating the human rights of persons with disabilities in all aspects of development processes. The 1980's saw the submission of a very instructive report [5].

The 1990's were significant in terms of advancing the disability rights discourse. Just following the close of the United Nation's Decade of Disabled Persons (1983-1992), the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities were adopted by the forty-eighth session of the General Assembly in 1993. The Standard Rules are an international instrument with a human rights perspective for disability-sensitive policy design and evaluation as well as for technical and economic cooperation.

Discrimination on the basis of disability is often linked to racial, class and gender dissonance. Research has indicated that the consequences of disablement are particularly serious for women. Traditionally, women with disabilities are discriminated against on more than one ground: race, gender and disability, and often they have less access to essential services such as health care, education and vocational rehabilitation.

General Recommendation 18 of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) specifically deals with the issue of women with disabilities [6]. The optional protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women [7], which was adopted by the General Assembly in 1999, may also provide an important venue to specifically address the issues concerning women with disabilities. In the South African context women with disabilities have experienced an additional ground of discrimination to that of race-- in essence we have by and large experienced a triple form of discrimination or multiple forms of discrimination.

Proposed UN disability rights convention
There is no doubt that there are many international instruments that directly or indirectly deal with issues pertaining to persons with disabilities. More recently there has been much progress towards a process to develop a disability specific Convention. In New York City, August 2002, State Parties met to discuss the development of this convention. The Ad Hoc Committee on a New Comprehensive and Integral International Convention on Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities will hopefully reconfigure the approach to disability and focus on the rights of all people regardless of their disability status but mindful of their needs and their diversity. The fact that so much has been achieved bears testimony to the various nations that have shown their commitment to a process of equality and, of course, to their citizens with disabilities. There can be no denying that, despite the long road travelled by persons with disabilities in order to reach this point, we remain a long way from the finishing line.

Having mentioned all these international instruments and initiatives, there are still far too many people, particularly women and children, who are vulnerable to stress and deprivation. One of the world's largest minorities, more than 1 in 10, are people with disabilities, who are too often forced into poverty, unemployment and social isolation.

Women and poverty
Poverty, unemployment and social disintegration too often result in isolation, marginalization and violence. The insecurity that many women with disabilities experience around their future and their children's future is intensifying:

Women with disabilities are still socially excluded: until not so long ago it was not uncommon to hear of forced sterilisation of disabled women, the denial of a family life, low employment levels and high levels of poverty. Poverty has various manifestations. For women with disabilities the following manifestations resonate: the lack of income and productive resources sufficient to ensure sustainable livelihoods; hunger and malnutrition; ill health; limited or lack of access to education and other basic services; increased morbidity and mortality from illness; homelessness and inadequate housing; unsafe environments; and social discrimination and exclusion. Poverty is also characterized by a lack of participation in decision-making and in civil, social and cultural life. Women and particularly women with disabilities bear a disproportionate burden of poverty, and children growing up in poverty are often permanently disadvantaged and in some instances responsible for disablement. Furthermore, poverty in its various forms represents a barrier to communication and access to services, as well as a major health risk, and people with disabilities living in poverty are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of disasters and conflicts. Absolute poverty is a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to social services. For women with disabilities addressing poverty is critical.

Another important area to consider in the emancipation of women with disabilities is sexual and domestic violence. Sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, and domestic abuse are all forms of abuse to which women with disabilities are particularly vulnerable, despite the fact that existing human rights provisions provide the right to be free from such abuse. Institutional and other settings frequently expose women with disabilities to abusive individuals. Often the victims of abuse are no able to report violations or seek redress.

Laws are a vital component in broader mechanisms to redress the systemic inequalities and unfair discrimination that remain deeply embedded in social structures, practices, attitudes and environments. There is a particular and urgent need to revise legislation governing accessibility and the built environment. At a national level much has happened in this regard, particularly in the development of polices and the review of legislation:

In South Africa, some important pieces of legislation and policy for women with disabilities are:
  • The Integrated National Disability Strategy
  • The Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination - PEPUDA
  • The New Child Care Act.
  • The South African Schools Act
  • The new Disability Code of Best Practises- launched recently by the Department of Labour.
African Decade
Other important initiatives include the launching of the African Decade for Persons with Disabilities (2000-2009). This is an important mechanism because it is more regional/country specific and understands the complexities and nuances that African states may face in addressing the issue of disability. The Decade is aimed at empowering and improving the conditions of persons with disabilities. It is a sub programme of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). NEPAD has been adopted as a roadmap for development in Africa and we must ensure that women with disabilities are part of this.

The girl child
At the national level, we must ensure equal educational opportunities at all levels for the girl child with a disability and young women with disabilities are provided for in integrated settings taking full account of individual differences and situations. We must strive to ensure that women with disabilities have access to rehabilitation and other independent living services and assistive technology to enable them to maximize their well-being, independence and full participation in society.

We must insist that development cannot happen without us all. We need to ensure that the voices of disabled women are part of decision making. We must therefore engage with women's groups and form strategic alliances. A rights based approach to development requires a high level of participation. This participation must be active and independent. The slogan - " Nothing about us without us" rings in my mind.

There is also an urgent need to educate society about the rights of women with disabilities as well as educate women with disabilities about their rights, because, knowledge is power. The rights contained in the South African Constitution run the risk of being toothless tigers - unless women are empowered to claim them and seek the appropriate redress in the event that rights have been violated.

The right to development
Still consumed by the World Summit on Sustainable Development that recently took place in Johannesburg, I am reminded that the right to development is critical for women with disabilities. It is important for both the individual as well as the collective. As a collective, women with disabilities must continue to fly the flag of equality until all women disabled or not enjoy their Human Rights, and can contribute to the development a culture of human rights premised on human dignity and respect.

Central challenge
It is clear that the triple oppression and or dissonance between race, gender and disability have no place in the 21st Century. The principal question and challenge that we all need to answer is whether the will exists to transform all this rhetoric into reality and change the lives of women with disabilities.

[1] Adopted by General Assembly resolution 2200 A (XXI) of 16h December 1966. Entered into force on 23 March 1976 in accordance with Article 49.
[2] Adopted by General Assembly resolution 2200 A (XXI) of 16h December 1966. Entered into force on 3 January 1976 in accordance with Article 27.
[3] Adopted by General Assembly resolution 2856 (XXVI) of 20 December 1971
[4] Adopted by General Assembly resolution 31/123 of 16 December 1976.
[5[ Report by Leandro Despouy of Argentina as Special Rapporteur of the Sub Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities.
[6] General Recommendation No.18, 10th session (1991), Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/recommendations.htm
[7] Adopted by the General Assembly resolution 54/4 of 15 October 1999.

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