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The focus of this report is the multiple discrimination experienced by women and girls in Africa, examined through evidence gathered in Ghana, Kenya and Mali, and the voices and demands of women and girls across the region. It forms part of the GCAP Leave No Woman Behind programme of work being undertaken with GCAP partner organisations working globally, regionally and nationally to raise awareness and promote structural changes. The objective is to ensure that the rights of women and girls with disabilities are fully realised in line with the Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the realisation by 2030 of the Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals.
Leave No One Behind is the underlying principle of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and is the central thread which weaves together its 17 Goals and 169 targets. No group could be further behind than the women and girls with disabilities in Africa, who carry multiple burdens of discrimination, now intensified by the lockdowns and controls in place due to Covid-19.
Multiple disadvantages of women and girls with disabilities
Women and girls with disabilities in Africa carry a multiple burden of discrimination, by virtue of their age, gender and their disability. People with disabilities, both female and male, make up about 15% of the world’s population, one billion people. 80% of persons with disabilities live in developing countries and women and girls with disabilities represent more than half of all persons with disabilities worldwide and almost 20% of all women. Women have higher prevalence than men, 19.2%, compared to 12%. Compared with men with disabilities, globally, women with disabilities are three times more likely to have unmet needs for health care; three times more likely to be illiterate; two times less likely to be employed and two times less likely to use the Internet. Among those employed, women with disabilities are two times less likely to work as legislators, senior officials or managers.
Voices of women and girls with disabilities
The experiences recorded in this section of the report provide a vivid picture of the barriers encountered by women and girls with disabilities in their everyday lives. The section highlights both their demands for political action and their desire to be able to participate and for their voices to be heard. Key to change is confronting prejudice and stigma. Invisibility, stigma and marginalisation of women and girls with disabilities are exacerbated by age, gender and type of disability, leading to multiple discriminations and violence, often perpetrated by those closest to them. In the three countries studied in detail for this project – Kenya, Mali and Ghana – approximately one in five of the poorest people have a disability. Poverty and marginalisation are compounded when gender, age and disability intersect, contributing to extreme vulnerability. Even where there are laws that supposedly provide support for women and girls with disabilities, the intensity of stigma and negative attitudes toward disability often makes them ineffective. Focus group participants told how people with disabilities are still believed to be cursed and to embody bad omens for their families. They are treated as outcasts, as bad luck in the family, and even forced to leave the home.
Overcoming barriers to essential services and to social protection is linked to overcoming stigma. The report describes how in all three countries women with disabilities had difficulties in accessing the services they were entitled to, including health because information about their entitlements was not available or because the offices they needed to visit were not disabled-friendly. In Kenya it has been reported that almost three quarters of PWDs living in informal settlements in urban areas are less likely to have adequate access to health services, due to stigma and infrastructural limitations. In all three countries, despite legal provisions to social protection, defective design, inaccessible pay points, poor access to information on entitlements and problems of coverage and adequacy effectively exclude women and children with disabilities from their entitlements. Exclusion from education – due to high costs, few schools with access or facilities for disabled children, and high drop-out rates – leads to lack of opportunities for employment. In all three countries poor or non-existent education for women and girls with disabilities means they find it difficult or impossible to get work and, when employed, they find that few allowances are made for them. Political participation, as political influencers and voters, is highlighted as very important for change, but in all countries the lack of finance combined with discriminatory attitudes, as well as the poor design of public buildings, are effective barriers to political participation. Political opponents can and do cite disability to justify discrimination.
Stigma, invisibility, and exclusion from services and social protection come together in violence and abuse. Women and girls with disabilities are at greater risk of violence and sexual abuse than women without disabilities. Women with disabilities are at two to four times higher risk of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) than women without disabilities. In the words of the chairwoman of a disabled persons association in rural Kenya, “Most people do not respect us as people who deserve to be treated with dignity, when something happens to a disabled person, it is not taken as seriously compared to when something happens to a nondisabled person. This is not only by the community, even the police, the hospitals, the schools, the churches, parents, everybody …., what do you say when a parent takes 200 shillings (USD $2.00) and agrees to close their eyes when their daughter has been raped?” The scale of the violence against women and girls with disabilities in Africa is evidence of the wider societal issue of truly dangerous and unhealthy attitudes towards women, which can be internalised by women themselves, and disabled women and men. Serious effort must now be invested in changing these attitudes and at the same time law enforcement agencies and the courts must begin to take gender-based violence seriously and prosecute the perpetrators.
The Covid-19 pandemic has intensified the overlapping difficulties faced by women and girls with disabilities. The lockdowns and controls imposed to contain the spread of the virus have, in the words of UN Women, facilitated a shadow pandemic of violence against all women – a shadow pandemic which, as our evidence shows, has particularly affected women and girls with disabilities. Lockdown measures have confined them to their homes, increased their vulnerability, isolated them from friends and their support networks and made them even more dependent on immediate family. Impacts also include reduced access to health services, including maternal health; the burden of caring for the sick; and loss of income without compensation as opportunities for work in informal sector dry up.
GCAP partners have been collecting information and making recommendations to governments as the pandemic has developed. The overriding concern is how already poor and marginalised women and girls with disabilities obtain information, hygiene, health and income support to enable them to live safely in the midst of lockdowns and to have redress against the discrimination and hostility which has been heightened by fear of the pandemic.
Poor data is a consequence of and driver of invisibility, lack of voice and human rights abuses. As this report shows, civil society, academics and persons with disabilities themselves have provided plentiful evidence of the difficulties that women and girls with disabilities face in their daily lives, but timely statistical data on the numbers of people living with disabilities is sorely lacking. ‘Leave No One Behind’ challenges all governments to include all groups and sectors on an equal basis to achieve the SDGs. To do this, as the 2030 Agenda recognises, accurate disaggregated and timely data is needed to determine whether all those in danger of being left behind have been identified and action taken to include them. Target 18 of Goal 17, the penultimate paragraph of the SDGs, embracing all the goals and targets that precede it, calls for support to developing countries, “to increase significantly the availability of high-quality, timely and reliable data disaggregated by income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location and other characteristics relevant in national contexts.” Tools needed to gather these data are available: the Washington Group questions on functioning, are increasingly being used in national censuses and surveys. The Malawi example shows how using these questions can provide a proper picture of disability in a country or particular population to support policy change and budget provision.
Upholding and acting on the rights of women and girls with disabilities
The rights of persons with disabilities are supported by overarching human rights frameworks, derived from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the subsequent body of international human rights law. All the three countries in the report, and countries across Africa, have ratified the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, agreed in 2018, promises in its Article 17, to “promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human and people’s rights by all persons with disabilities, and to ensure respect for their inherent dignity”, with specific provisions for women and girls. All countries of Africa are signatories to the Sustainable Development Goals which have specific commitments for disability inclusion in Goal 4 (Education), Goal 8 (Decent Work and Social Protection), Goal 10 (Inequalities), Goal 11 (Built Environment) and Goal 17 (Partnerships and Data).
The way forward
To sum up, the obligations of government to women and girls with disabilities are not in doubt, and the voices of women and girls with disabilities express clearly what they expect and want.
|• Voices of women and girls with disabilities to be heard and taken into account|
• Equal opportunities to contribute fully to their communities and countries.
• Inclusive policies that enable, rather than prevent, development and contributions.
• To be fully involved as equal participants in developing and implementing policies on disability, gender equality, social development, environmental sustainability and humanitarian programmes.
• Meaningful representation of women with disabilities in national regional and international political processes and within organisations of the United Nations and multilateral bodies.