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For Women With Disabilities, It Is A Life Of Double Disadvantage

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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.

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Image source: Danish Siddiqui, REUTERS/Getty Images
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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