This South Asian regional project is an effort to increase the visibility of women with disabilities (WWD) in the disability movement and to ensure that their voices are heard. Core non-governmental organisation (NGO) partners are the Association of Women with Disabilities (AKASA) in Sri Lanka, Social Assistance and Rehabilitation for the Socially Vulnerable (SARPV) in Bangladesh, and the Association of Women with Disabilities (AWWD) in India. Other participating countries include: Nepal, Maldives, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bhutan, and Azerbaijan. Together, they hope to build the capacity and confidence of WWD to be leaders with prominent voices in the movement for disabled people's rights in South Asia. A broader aim is to encourage the creation of a movement of WWD in every region and to create spaces for members to link up in the future.
Rather than providing rehabilitation services or assistive appliances such as wheelchairs, the project focuses on interpersonal communication: supporting WWD to be leaders and advocate for their rights.
Recognising the lack of evidence-based data and information about WWD's situations, attitudes of policymakers, and the shortcomings of disability projects run by governments and NGOs, each partner carried out a baseline survey in their own country. A study also gathered regional evidence in Nepal under the guidance of AWWD. Based on findings, collaborators planned leadership training to create female leadership among disabled women at regional, national, and grassroot levels. Healthlink Worldwide in the United Kingdom (UK) provided technical support and guidance to design modules, develop materials, and conduct leadership trainings to all the core partners.
Organisers conducted regional leadership training with 25 WWD participating from South Asian countries. They then held national trainings in the 3 core countries - India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka - for over 75 disabled women. The training prompted WWD to think about leadership: Who is a leader? What kind of leader do you want to be? How can you be a good leader to influence other disabled women? How do power relationships, discrimination, and marginalisation affect disabled women at all levels from the family to the wider community and nationally? How can you influence policymakers, and what is a good advocacy strategy? What is the existing international legislation for the protection of the rights of disabled people, and women specifically?
The purpose of the workshops was to increase the level of participation of WWD in dialogue with policy stakeholders. Through sharing baseline survey findings, cascade training, a consultation meeting on United Nations (UN) policies, and advocacy meetings, the project has worked to create space for WWD to get their voices heard. For example:
- One of the women who participated in the training, Rupa from India, has started her own initiative to organise disabled women in her district, transfer her leadership skills, and advocate for their rights. Also, WWD in India met with state actors and other stakeholders to discuss the baseline data with the goal of strengthening the voices of WWD, highlighting their need to work together and participate in policy dialogues in order to influence policy. National networks have been developed, and there is now a National Federation of Women with Disabilities. Consultation meetings held on UN policies have focused on bringing together the government, civil societies, and WWD to discuss the status of WWD and the initiatives needed to fulfil commitments to national policies and international treaties.
- Another of the women who participated in the training, Nishintha from Sri Lanka, is organising disabled women and conducting leadership training at the district level. Also, WWD in Sri Lanka shared the baseline report and conducted sensitisation for government officials in North Central Province, which mobilised the Chief Ministry of the Provincial Council to conduct a survey of people with disabilities. With AKASA's support, this led to a provincial constitution, the establishment of a Council advisor for people with disabilities, and a slot for discussing issues related to WWD on the Council's monthly agenda.
- In Bangladesh, there have been joint advocacy initiatives for the rights of WWD through nurturing links with other women's groups; this has led to the development of platforms from which WWD groups can lobby the government for their rights. A formal 9-member national working group "Women with Disabilities Development Network-Bangladesh" was created on February 1 2009.
- Across the region, WWD are communicating, sharing, and disseminating information about their new initiatives to the global community - in part through a network website (Network of South Asian Women With Disabilities, or NSAWWD) set up as a resource on disabled women's issues.
For further details about the project and access to disability and inclusion resources, please visit the Creating Spaces page on the Healthlink Worldwide website.
Women, Gender, Rights
According to organisers, poverty is both a cause and consequence of disability. The disabled comprise 20% of the world's economically poorest people. They often pay more for treatment, transport, and other services - and yet are excluded from economic opportunities. Disabled women and girls face a double discrimination based on gender and disability. A European Union (EU) guidance note on disability and development (2003) indicated that they "are often excluded from education, health services, family life and employment and experience high rates of sexual abuse with the high risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. They often have low self-esteem and confidence resulting from a life of discrimination and exclusion." In addition, focus groups have found that the exclusion faced by WWD extends to sectors traditionally considered inclusive, including NGOs who exclude WWD from accessing micro-credit because they are seen as too great a risk.
Kuhu Das is a disabled woman activist who founded AWWD. She explains, "I had polio in early childhood causing impairment in my mobility, so I am disabled. When I started working for the empowerment of women in general, I realised that empowerment programmes did not include disabled women. At every forum I would bring up issues around disability but I was the only person talking about it. Hardly any disabled women would come out and talk about themselves and their rights. So I decided to work for the empowerment of disabled women..."
According to organisers, 3 key lessons emerged during the course of the project, and the partners see it as crucial to advocate for their inclusion within existing policies and programmes affecting the development of WWD in the countries and the region:
- Leadership training alone cannot help to improve the livelihoods or achieve the complete empowerment of WWD; they also need practical skills development to be able to seek out inclusive education and employment opportunities. A particular lesson that emerged is the need to learn English and develop skills for communicating in national, regional, and international forums.
- There is an acute need for advocacy for the sexual and reproductive health rights of WWD, because often their sexual identity is not recognised.
- Socio-cultural issues and practices still dominate the lives of WWD and need immediate attention. In this regard, the partners see a specific need to research and support inheritance rights.
AKASA, SARPV, and AWWD - with Healthlink Worldwide.
Emails from Alison Dunn and Deepthi Wickremasinghe to The Communication Initiative on March 3 2009 and July 20 2010, respectively; "Disabled Women Leaders: The New Face of Disability" (Health Exchange, Spring 2009 - produced by Healthlink Worldwide, Merlin, and RedR); and the Creating Spaces page on the Healthlink Worldwide website, July 21 2010.