International Women’s Day is not just a day to celebrate the progress and improvement of women’s rights across the globe, but also an opportunity to look at the areas we must focus on. On this International Women’s Day, it must be remembered that every woman has a different experience within society. Adopting an intersectional and inclusive approach to the fight for women’s rights is essential. There is much feminist literature that has inadvertently excluded many groups and held the assumption that women are a homogenous group. Listening and projecting the voices of every woman’s experience is the most important tool for developing sustainable solutions across the globe.In this piece, I would like to highlight the intersections between gender and disability.
Intersectionality was first highlighted by Kimberlé Crenshaw. Crenshaw describes the term as a metaphor for understanding the ways multiple forms of inequality can compound themselves creating obstacles that can not be understood by conventional ways of thinking about anti-racism or feminism. Crenshaw highlights that it is not a grand theory but rather a prism, social justice is not always simply a gender issue or race issue, but rather that they can intersect. It is imperative that within research and policy we critically interrogate how gender, race, religion, disability, sexuality, and class can all intersect.
However, I’d first like to emphasize that language around disability matters. For this piece, I will be using the term ‘women with disabilities’ which takes the person-first theory. However, I want it to be recognized that others may have made a different choice and used the identity-first theory, ‘disabled women’. Currently, there is no consensus as to which terminology is preferred, but it is important to understand the power of language and recognize respectful language.
Violence Towards Women with Disabilities
Across the globe, women are exposed to violence. While dealing with gender-based violence, the intersection between gender and disability becomes a matter of serious concern. The risk of facing gender-based violence increases by many times for women with disabilities. For women with disabilities, abuse can be perpetuated by not only intimate partners but also family members, personal care assistants, and even health care professionals. Not only is the risk of domestic abuse overwhelmingly more prevalent for women with disabilities, but the violence can also take very different forms.
These forms of violence can include (but are not limited to):
-Tampering with or restricting medication
-Withholding or damaging assistive devices such as hearing aids or wheelchairs
-Denying access to health care or community services
-Inappropriate touching while assisting with dressing or bathing
-Physical and emotional abuse
In terms of sexual violence, women with disabilities are also more at risk. In some areas of the world where education levels are low, there are deeply ingrained cultural beliefs that girls who are virgins hold the cure for HIV/AIDS. This dangerous belief has become a real risk for women with disabilities, this is due to society’s assumption that disabled women are asexual and are not sexually active. As a result of this belief, women with disabilities become targets for sexual violence.
All of these forms of emotional, physical, and sexual violence often resort to extreme feelings of isolation. To add to this, reaching out for help or support can be even more tricky. Within England, less than 2% of women’s refuge spaces are accessible to wheelchair users. This presents a huge barrier for women but also signifies how the built environment has excluded women with disabilities. Even when women with disabilities are in a safe home, violence has been mirrored online. Women with disabilities are not only targeted with misogynistic and highly sexist slurs online but also further discrimination against their disability. This can lead to feelings of isolation and lead partial or complete withdrawal from the online community, consequently jeopardizing the fundamental human right of freedom of expression. This shows how the intersection between gender and disability becomes the deciding factor for one’s experience with physical, emotional and sexual violence.
Sexual Health and Reproductive Rights
In many societies, there is a lack of understanding of how women with disabilities experience and access sexual health services. As discussed above, there is a societal belief that women with disabilities are not sexually active and we must change and challenge this disableist view. By holding this untrue belief, women with disabilities are excluded by the assumption that they do not want to fulfill the role of a mother. This compromises their fundamental human right to be able to find a family (Universal Declaration of Human Rights). In some areas of the world, this has been taken to extreme levels. In 2017 Disability Rights International discovered that in many state-run clinics in Mexico City, women with psychosocial disabilities had been sterilized or even pressured into having abortions.
This consistent exclusion and discrimination are further expanded. The intersection between gender and disability plays a very important role in access to quality health care. Many health care professionals are not trained in such a way that provides good communication between patient and doctor, for example, the use of sign language. This often means that women with disabilities may have to be accompanied by a partner or family member which may be intrusive and take away the independence of the individual. In addition to this, health care settings are often a place to express concerns regarding abuse at home, if women are always accompanied there may not be an opportunity to ask for help or support.
Health care services must also recognize that women with disabilities may need different approaches in support. Women with autism often find menstruation a traumatic experience, there is, therefore, the demand that health care professionals should be trained and equipped to provide the best support in these areas.
Being a woman with a disability in a war-torn country
We must recognize the experiences of women with disabilities who seek refuge after fleeing a war-torn country. Many refugee camps are inaccessible, leaving women with disabilities confined to their shelters and resulting in extreme isolation, stress, and anxiety. In addition to this, during the conflict, assistive devices may have been damaged or lost and there is a need to replace or repair these. However, many staff in refugee camps may lack the training to recognize disability or there may be low availability of new or repaired assistive devices. Furthermore, previously accessed community support from their home country is no longer available and is also not provided in most refugee camps. This drastic change can often be very emotionally and physically damaging.
In the UK it is estimated that around four million people with disabilities are currently living in poverty. There are many reasons why one’s experience with poverty is linked with the intersection between gender and disability as the levels of poverty for people with disabilities are higher. This can include the costs of living being expensive, for reasons such as extra support or travel and the limited financial support from many governments. In addition to this, there is less work available, not only because of discrimination and societal attitudes, but also a lack of jobs that are accessible to everybody. In some cases, people with disabilities are paid less than their peers who have the same qualification but do not have a disability. Taking an intersectional lens, women face this ‘double discrimination of the ever visible gender pay gap in conjunction with discrimination towards disability.
In poorer communities around the world, responsibilities such as collecting water, cooking, cleaning, and emotional care for family remain deeply gendered. For women with disabilities, the subjugated position in the family also disadvantages access to surgery or health care. There becomes a struggle for bargaining power due to their economic status within the family. This health care is often crucial for women with disabilities, however, due to gendered inequalities they are excluded from this essential medical care.
The gap in education for girls is already considerably large. However, the education gap widens even further for women and girls with disabilities. It is estimated that globally less than 5% of girls with disabilities have access to education. This could be for multiple reasons such as; attitudes within society and the family, inadequate transport, inaccessible schools, or the lack of support within communities. When access to education is limited, areas such as finance, nutrition and health, family, and employment are put at risk and can further increase poverty.
‘It is only by applying an intersectional and inclusive approach that policies can truly reflect the structural discrimination and barriers that women with disabilities face’ (UN Women)
To briefly sum up the above points about intersections between gender and disability, society has been designed with the exclusion of women with disabilities. Societal attitudes and the built environment have been adapted to suit men without disabilities. To tackle these global inequalities effectively, it is imperative that we approach research through an intersectional lens. We need to understand the complexities of experience and how far-stretching an intersectional approach is.
Challenging Ableist Attitudes:
As demonstrated, we must eliminate the belief that women with disabilities are less capable. Reproductive rights and access to sexual health are imperative for women’s health. Assuming women with disabilities have chosen not to be sexually active or start a family is deeply disableist.
To begin to challenge these attitudes we must tackle access to education but most importantly demand an inclusive education. Attitudes can also be changed through media representations of women with disabilities. This can provide positive role models and empower young girls with disabilities while also encouraging leadership.
Eradicate Violence Towards Women with Disabilities
As always, there must be a continuation to dismantle the highly gendered patriarchal systems that are embedded within society and strive to protect women from violence. However, we must also go further to design accessible services such as police stations, shelters, health services, and courts in order for women with disabilities to seek refuge and justice.
We must actively include how we tackle violence against women with disabilities in development projects. This should be backed up with thorough research that has listened to the true experiences of women with disabilities.
Empowering Women with Disabilities and Recognizing Agency
Most importantly, we must continue to empower women with disabilities, demanding the inclusion of their voices in the design of policies. Society’s exclusion and discrimination have often silenced women with disabilities, research must amplify these voices in order to provide adequate policy. Applying an intersectional lens toward women’s rights is crucial for providing an equal future for everyone.