Left behind ? Women with disabilities during COVID-19

The European Disability Forum organised on 19 June 2020 a webinar of the same title to examine how the current pandemic impacts the 60 million women and girls with disabilities in Europe. The panel of speakers included representatives of EDF’s Women’s Committee, the European Women’s Lobby (EWL), the European Commission, the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), UN Women and the Spanish women’s foundation CERMI. All agreed that due to the intersection of sexism and ableism, women with disabilities are left out in efforts to reduce the negative impact of the pandemic on particularly vulnerable populations. In general, neither the disability movement nor the women’s movement advocate for their rights as a priority, and this is not different in times of crisis.

Luisa Bosisio, an Italian member of EDF’s board and the Women’s Committee, criticised that public authorities did not consult with disability organisations when determining countermeasures to the pandemic, and therefore women with disabilities were affected especially hard. In Italy, the majority of institution-dwelling people with disabilities are women, and they were disproportionately hit by the lockdown that translated into severe isolation. Personal assistance having been declared a non-essential service, women with disabilities and mothers with children with disabilities were left without assistance. When the increase in intimate partner violence pushed the authorities to communicate about victim support, no information was available in accessible formats, again leaving women with disabilities, who are more at risk of violence, in isolation and without help. And the general difficult access to health services and reproductive rights was even more challenging for women with disabilities, jeopardising their access to birth control, abortion, pregnancy care and cancer prevention.

The secretary-general of the EWL, Joanna Maycock, reminded the audience of the socio-economic and mental and physical health impacts of the pandemic response and the predicted economic recession. Although the awareness of violence against women and girls has increased during the lockdown, we are looking towards a difficult period where our societies may go backwards on gender equality. The 2008 economic crisis has taught us that cutting back public expenditure hits women and girls with disabilities hardest, due to a decrease in access to services. Therefore, the EWL calls for a new care deal that invests in care structures, quality jobs in the care sector and better access for all. 

Elizabeth White, policy officer at the gender equality unit of the European Commission, underlined that the recently adopted Gender Equality Strategy can play an important role in mitigating the pandemic’s impact on women with disabilities. It focuses on freedom from violence and harmful stereotypes, equal opportunities at work and women’s participation in decision making and calls on member states to increase their efforts in the current situation. Other measures that may be used to defend the rights of women with disabilities are the measures for transparency on equality in the labour market, the work-life balance directive and research on gender-based violence with an intersectional approach. The Commission also calls for the EU’s accession to the Istanbul Convention and will integrate a gender perspective in the forthcoming Disability Strategy.

EIGE was represented by the researcher Marre Karu. She said that as in all issues, women with disabilities are disproportionately impacted and discriminated against during the current pandemic. EIGE will publish the gender equality index, based on 2018 data, that includes a few disability statistics. The data shows that across Europe, women with disabilities suffer from the poorest health while having the highest level of unmet medical needs of all populations. This will probably have been exacerbated during the pandemic. Women with disabilities have a 35% risk of poverty. Their main reason for not participating in the labour market is their care work, while for their male counterparts it is their disability. The change in work forms during the lockdown may make employment more accessible in the future, but data is needed to plan for mitigating the long-term impact of the pandemic by integrating disability indicators into general socio-economic indicators.

A global perspective on the situation of women with disabilities came from Monjurul Kabir, senior advisor on gender equality and disability inclusion at UN Women. It is still early to conclude on the extent of the pandemic’s impact on women with disabilities, but several consequences are already known. Firstly, people with disabilities lost their jobs disproportionally often and had less access to new employment. Secondly, parents with disabilities, and even more so mothers with disabilities, had to carry the burden of family care, which was exacerbated if their children also have a disability. And finally, violence at home and in institutional settings has increased. Accessing essential services has become a huge challenge for women with disabilities. For example, helplines are often not accessible although they are technology-driven services. Refugees and migrant workers, who also include women with disabilities, can neither return to their country of origin nor access services in their host country and face particular challenges. The global pandemic has a severe impact on national economies, and governments have to review their budgets. Gender equality and disability inclusion are again the poor parents when it comes to distributing resources. In the long-term, the pandemic will lead to cuts in public services, especially at the local level that is often not included in national planning processes, further endangering the rights of women with disabilities.

In terms of good practices, Isabel Caballero, coordinator of the Spanish CERMI Women’s foundation, presented their work with women with disabilities during the pandemic. Spain having been hit particularly hard by covid-19, a huge societal debate is ongoing. Of the 27 000 covid-related deaths registered until June, two thirds occurred in care homes for seniors and people with disabilities. Official statistics indicate that at least 6% of femicides concern women with disabilities, but the proportion is probably higher because disability status is not registered systematically. The lockdown caused an increased demand on specific services for women with disabilities. CERMI facilitated access to information and resources on violence against women and girls, including a service for deaf women provided by the Spanish Federation of Deaf People. They also organised weekly online meeting spaces (No estás sola – you are not alone) for women with disabilities to talk about their experiences with the lockdown. An average of 200 women from Spain and Latin America joined the conversation on health, care management, gender-based violence, access to work and the role of women with disabilities in the reconstruction process. The foundation also designed research on violence against women with disabilities and published a new report on their right to health. In all these endeavours, they worked with the National Council for the participation of women with disabilities.

The subsequent discussion with the audience identified specific challenges for women with disabilities living in rural areas and having less access to new media and the different needs of women living in institutions and community-dwelling women. It also allowed the speakers to share their ideas on how to push the women’s movement towards taking women with disabilities better into account. Alliances between disability and women’s organisations, spaces for meeting and exchanging experiences and identifying people bringing both agendas together are very important. But most importantly, women’s organisations need to become more inclusive, just as disability organisations should take gender into consideration transversally.