November 8, 2016 | By Namrata Caleb
In a largely patriarchal society like India’s, women face a significant disadvantage when it comes to accessing educational, health and job opportunities. According to the 2011 Census, while male literacy stands at 82%, female literacy stands at an abysmal 65%. Gender discrimination at birth in India has led to a skewed sex ratio of 940 females for every 1000 males. In addition, Indian women face acts of sexual violence and domestic abuse on a regular basis.
For women with disabilities, both physical and intellectual, this disadvantage is reinforced further, leading to a ‘double disadvantage’. They are discriminated against for both their gender and their disability, and fare worse – in terms of access to education, sexual, and reproductive rights, entitlements and quality healthcare – than men with disabilities or women without disabilities.
Even though the Census estimates are contested for being too low, it says that at least 48 million women in India have disabilities. How do they fare?
In the area of education, women and girls with disabilities fare less well than men with disabilities and female counterparts without disabilities.
UNESCO and the World Blind Union estimates say that the worldwide literacy rate for women with disabilities is 1%, compared to about 3% for people with disabilities as a whole. In one study in India, the percentage of girls with disabilities going to school (38%) was found to be much lower than the percentage of boys with disabilities (61%) going to school. Often, families are unwilling to spend on the education of girls with disabilities, especially if they need disability-related equipment or special transportation, causing girls to discontinue their education.
In addition, girls with disabilities who go to school also face higher risks of sexual abuse and violence, with some reports suggesting that they are up to three times more likely to be victims of such abuse than other women. This also often leads to parents being reluctant to send their children to school. Most schools also lack accessible toilets that can be accessed by girls with disabilities. In fact, most schools in India fail to provide separate toilets for girls and boys, creating a huge barrier to education for girls with disabilities.
It is often assumed that women with disabilities will not marry, and thus will prove to be a long-term burden on their parents. They are assumed to be ‘asexual’; an assumption which represses their sexual identity. Men with disabilities, however, are more likely to be educated and married and later go on to become breadwinners of their families. As a result, sons with disabilities fare better than daughters with disabilities.
Women and girls with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities are also forced into mental hospitals and institutions where they live in unsanitary living conditions and are at a higher risk of physical and sexual abuse, as documented in the provocative report: “Treated worse than animals – Abuses against Women and Girls with Psychosocial or Intellectual Disabilities in Institutions in India”.
These institutions face overcrowding, poor hygiene, inadequate access to quality general healthcare and forced treatment – including electroconvulsive therapy. This is mainly due to neglect by government authorities and their inability to provide quality support and services. Sexual violence against women with disabilities is also a silent act because in many cases the women do not realise that they are victims of such abuse.
In the sphere of economic empowerment, disabilities accentuate existing gender gaps. This is true even for common, elementary entitlements such as pensions, aids, appliances etc., which a greater proportion of men with disabilities are able to access than women with disabilities.
It is also found that women with disabilities have a lower participation rate in Self-Help Groups (SHGs). Such SGHs have proved to be immensely beneficial in empowering women, improving their financial independence and overall confidence. However, given the stigma attached to disabilities, women with disabilities find it hard to be actively involved in such SHGs. In light of the fact that women with disabilities often do not get married and are abandoned by their families, there is a crucial need for them to become economically empowered and have access to such support structures.
While women’s rights are fiercely advocated, the rights of women with disabilities are often ignored. They fall into a yawning gap: on the one hand, women’s rights groups are too focused on gender to take into account the disability dimension, on the other hand, disability groups do not take into account how the needs of women with disabilities differ from those of men with disabilities.
The Government of India has also been unable to address this issue adequately. In the 2011 draft of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, there was originally a section on women and girls with disabilities. Unfortunately, this section had been removed and is absent from the 2014 version of the bill. While women and girls are mentioned in the Bill, they are not mentioned as a different group with specific needs.
So what can be done?
There is a need to recognise that women with disabilities constitute a different social group who need a specific and structured set of policies. According to Human Rights Watch, the Indian Government must also immediately order inspections and regular monitoring of all residential facilities, private and government.
There is also the need to fill the gaps in the access to good quality healthcare and institutional services for such individuals. It is clear that this needs to become an essential part of the present Government’s agenda if we are to empower women with disabilities with the ability to overcome the challenges they face.
Civil society groups and non-governmental organisations can contribute by recognising the issue and advocating for the rights of women with disabilities. This could be done through the dissemination of information to the public or by encouraging dialogue and discussion.
Since women with disabilities constitute one of the weakest groups in the Indian society, they require constant support to have their voices heard.
Being a woman in India is hard enough, we all need to recognise the ‘double disadvantage’ that women with disabilities suffer. This is an area that needs societal support and activism in the fight for equality and inclusion of all – regardless of gender or (dis)ability.
About the Author: Namrata is currently an intern at Amaltas Consulting Pvt. Ltd, which is working with the Amrit Foundation of India to carry out the Patang Survey – the first rigorous study of availability, access and utilisation of services by children with intellectual and developmental challenges across the state of Delhi. She is pursuing an undergraduate degree in Economics at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi and is interested in a career in the development sector. She is interning at Amaltas to understand better the challenges that exist in the sector.