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“Break Barriers, Open Doors: for an inclusive society and development for all” is the theme of this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, marked today, December 3rd. A critical component of “breaking barriers” and “opening doors” must be that we look for and engage those who are less visible, those who have less voice, in the disabled community. As December 3rd also falls in the 16 days of Activism against Gender Violence, the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) is calling attention to the needs and capacities of women and girls with disabilities in situations of conflict and crisis. We must learn more about their concerns and ideas to make both humanitarian and development programs accessible to and inclusive of them.
The World Health Organization reports that rates of violence may be 4-10 times greater among persons with disabilities than among non-disabled persons. This has significant implications for their protection in displacement settings—especially when it comes to protection from gender-based violence (GBV). Despite GBV programs being integral to initial humanitarian responses, persons with disabilities may not have the same access as other community members to these services and community activities. Ensuring the safety and protection of persons with disabilities in situations of risk—including armed conflict, humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters—is the focus of Article 11 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
In partnership with operational agencies, such as the United High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Rescue Committee (IRC), the WRC has conducted consultations with persons with disabilities and their care-givers in 10 countries. In the vast majority of contexts, women and girls with disabilities have expressed concerns about and told of experiences of gender-based violence.
Persons with disabilities report negative attitudes in their communities, which lead to multiple levels of discrimination and greater vulnerability to violence, abuse and exploitation, especially for women and girls with disabilities. Community members often perceive that they will be unable to physically defend themselves from a perpetrator or effectively report incidents of violence. Women and girls with intellectual and mental disabilities are particularly vulnerable, as they lack knowledge about GBV and awareness of personal safety; this may be because they are excluded from women’s empowerment programs and because information is conveyed in a format they cannot understand. Loss of social cohesion in situations of new displacement places these women at added risk, as they are surrounded by strangers and there are fewer protective mechanisms in place in the community. Isolation and a lack of contact with community networks, however, can also increase their risk of violence inside the home. As a deaf woman living in Nepal told us during a group discussion:
“To outsiders, everything looks fine, but actually they are neglected, beaten and abused by the family.”
Mothers of persons with disabilities who require full assistance with daily care have also reported being at risk of exploitation and abuse, as they too are isolated in their homes while caring for family members, and rely on other community member to access services and assistance.
Finally, in urban settings women with disabilities and the families of persons with disabilities may experience extreme poverty and lack of assistance to care for their basic needs, which increases their risk of abuse and exploitation. This may also lead some women and girls with disabilities to engage in survival sex and prostitution.
But the women and girls with disabilities whom we have met also demonstrate great skills, capacities and willingness to contribute to humanitarian programs and the wider community. In a workshop on Disability Inclusion in Gender-based Violence Programs in Nepal, a Bhutanese woman with disabilities made the following recommendation:
“Persons with disabilities are only in the disability centre. They should also be in the Camp Management Committee, so they can support themselves and be involved in other agencies.”
GBV practitioners are increasingly aware of the needs of this particular group, and there is growing demand for practical tools and resources to facilitate effective inclusion in prevention programs, and to respond to the needs of survivors with disabilities. The WRC and IRC have a two-year project underway that seeks to strengthen the evidence base on effective strategies for disability inclusion in GBV prevention and response in humanitarian contexts.
As governments, United Nations agencies and humanitarian actors respond to new and emerging crises, such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, it is critical that we “break barriers” and “open doors” for the most hidden and marginalized groups in any community, and reach women and girls with disabilities in protection and empowerment programs.
 Over the last two years, the WRC, in collaboration with operational partners, has spoken to over 1,000 refugees, including refugees with disabilities and their care-givers, in India (New Delhi), Uganda, Ethiopia, Burundi, Thailand, Bangladesh, Nepal, Philippines (Mindanao), Jordan and Lebanon.