Promoting WWD’s rights during the covid crisis

The International Disability Alliance organised a webinar on promoting the rights of women with disabilities (WWD) during the covid crisis on 8 April, in collaboration with the European Disability Forum. To not lose traction in advocacy for the rights of women with disabilities, IDA selected speakers among women with disabilities who were scheduled to speak at the UN Committee of the Status of Women that was cancelled due to the pandemic. It was an interesting dialogue of voices of women with disabilities from all corners of the world.


Villany Remengesau (Pacific Disability Forum) presented a regional perspective from the Pacific. Critical information on sanitary precautions and available services was largely inaccessible through the use of technical and medical vocabulary in public service announcements. As women with disabilities often are concentrated in poor, overcrowded areas, their living conditions exacerbate their vulnerability. However, stigma and ableist attitudes are the biggest barriers to the rights of women with disabilities.

Ekaete Judith Umoh (African Disability Forum) highlighted the systemic and structural barriers, i.e. negative cultural beliefs and patriarchy, that hamper the rights of women with disabilities and let governments and the women’s movement neglect the issues and needs of women with disabilities. Except for sign language interpretation on screen in some countries, there has been no action towards people with disabilities at all during the current crisis. None of the covid assessment and treatment centres are accessible, as is food package distribution, in particular for single mothers with disabilities who cannot leave the house. While women’s organisations published statements on gender inequality and violence against women during the pandemic, they left out the specific situation of women with disabilities.

From the Indigenous People with Disabilities Global Network‘s perspective, represented by Pratima Gurung,disability is not on the political agenda during the covid-19 crisis. The basic needs of indigenous women with disabilities, like access to information in sign language or their native language are seldom acknowledged or met. She underlined that women with disabilities are a heterogenous group and they and their allies needed to accept that and adopt an approach that is at once sensitive to gender, disability and culture. Tokenism prevails in the women’s movement and the disability movement where women with disabilities are not included, their voices are not heard and they are not allowed to take decisions that impact them directly. 

Yeni Rosa Damayanti (TCI Asia) spoke on the specific situation of women with psychosocial disabilities. In many countries, they do not have legal capacity and are imprisoned in mental institutions. Women with psychosocial disabilities are often automatically put under (informal) guardianship and institutionalised without their consent, sometimes for life. The living conditions are prison-like, and forced contraception and sterilisation and sexual violence are frequent without any complaint mecanism available to the women. During the covid crisis, social care institutions, which are considered non-medical facilities, function like corona petri dishes, with 30 women living on one ward, bad sanitation and nutrition, no soap, no prevention measures in contact with staff and no information because they are considered unable to think. Of course, they do not have access to the media or internet either. If they are released because their institution closes due to covid, they have no place to go. However, it remains hard to raise this issue, even within the women’s and disability movements. In South East Asia, WWD groups are still considered as others who need help, not as fellow activists, and are not invited to gender training that is the base for today’s women’s NGOs. And in the disability movement, the issue of patriarchy is seldom raised. For example, domestic violence perpetrated by men with disabilities is erased to not disturb the image of people with disabilities as only victims of injustice. Disability organisations also do not invite women’s organisations to events. It is urgent to bring the two movements together.


Rosario Galarza (Focal Point of the Economic Commission for the Latin American and the Caribbean) recommended strategies for humanitarian aid actors to overcome the double exclusion of women with disabilities and to develop their leadership capacities. Firstly, a collaboration of states, humanitarian aid actors and WWD organisations will improve the inclusion of women with disabilities in emergency response needs. Secondly, WWD organisations need more support for capacity building to contribute their expertise in humanitarian issues. And thirdly, humanitarian actors need to recruit women with disabilities as volunteers and staff to ensure representativity in the field. The covid crisis has made it clear that it is necessary to include women with disabilities from the beginning of any action, and not in the end, as an add-on.

Pirkko Mahlamäki (European Disability Forum) presents as a good practice how the EDF collaborates with the European Women’s Lobby on the follow-up on the UN Convention Against All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. In Finland, her lobbying on the lack of accessible shelter places led to a first audit, but making services for women victims of violence accessible remains an ongoing effort. Concerning the covid crisis, personal assistants for people with disabilities should be included in the list of essential services so that they are allowed to work during lockdowns. In many instances, cases of rationing of care and ventilators on the basis of ability have been reported, and people with disabilities often are not tested, and, once deceased, are not included in the corona statistics.Other ideas for strategies for promoting the rights of women with disabilities came from Rupsa Mallik (CREA) who invited participants to challenge the language of inclusion and focus their efforts on developing the leadership of women with disabilities, as well as policy documents on these issues published by EDF and Women Enabled International that can be used as advocacy tools.