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Human Rights Watch is committed to promoting the human rights of all persons, and is supportive of the movement toward codification of a specific international human rights treaty on disability rights. We are concerned that the current draft of the treaty does not yet adequately protect the human rights of women and girls. This website and the linked documents provide background on this issue and suggest improvements for the treaty.

Background on Abuses of Disabled Women's and Girls' Rights

Approximately 300 million women around the world have mental and physical disabilities. Women constitute 75 percent of the disabled people in low and middle income countries. Women with disabilities comprise 10 percent of all women worldwide.

Women are more likely than men to become disabled during their lives, due in part to gender bias in the allocation of scarce resources and in access to services. When ill, girls and women are less likely to receive medical attention than boys and men, particularly in developing countries where medical care may be a considerable distance from home. They are also less likely to receive preventive care, such as immunizations. Due to social, cultural and religious factors, disabled women are less likely than men to make use of existing social services, including residential services, and it is estimated that disabled women worldwide receive only 20 percent of the rehabilitation. A study in the Asia Pacific region found that more than 80 percent of disabled women had no independent means of livelihood, and thus were totally dependent on others. According to the World Health Organization, girls with disabilities may be more readily institutionalized than boys.

Disabled women and girls face the same spectrum of human rights abuses that non-disabled women face, but their social isolation and dependence magnifies these abuses and their consequences. Women and girls with disabilities fare less well on most indicators of educational, professional, financial, and social success than their non-disabled female and disabled male counterparts. In some countries, laws overtly discriminate against disabled women and men, including by barring them from marrying if they have any form of mental disability.

Even where the laws are not discriminatory, disabled women and girls face a host of abuses at the hands of their families, communities, and the state. Though definitive data is rare, there is some evidence that disabled women and girls face higher rates of violence and discrimination than non-disabled women.

  • Disabled women's sexual and reproductive rights are grossly abused. They experience forced sterilization; forced abortion due to discriminatory attitudes about their parenting abilities; and denial of information about reproductive health and contraceptives. When seeking reproductive health care, disabled women often face abusive treatment at the hands of physicians who do not understand their particular circumstances. A study in the U.S. showed that women with disabilities were significantly less likely to receive pelvic exams than non-disabled women.
  • Disabled women also face limitations on their rights to marry and found a family, and often lose of custody of their children. In some countries, it is almost impossible for disabled women to adopt children.
  • Disabled women face high rates of violence, both at the hands of family members and of personal assistants. Their dependence on their caregivers makes it even more difficult for them to pursue a remedy than for non-disabled women. Even where shelters are available for survivors of domestic violence, they are rarely accessible for disabled women. Research indicates that the violence faced by disabled women may be more chronic and severe, and takes some unique forms, such as withholding of essential care and medication. It seems also to be more prevalent: surveys conducted in Europe, North America, and Australia have shown that over half of disabled women have experienced physical abuse, compared to one-third of non-disabled women. In the United States, children with disabilities are almost twice as likely to experience sexual abuse as non-disabled children.
  • The labor market does not adequately accommodate disabled women, nor are there sufficient laws to prevent and punish harassment – either sexual harassment or harassment on the basis of disability. According the United Nations, only one quarter of women with disabilities worldwide is in the workforce. They are twice as unlikely to find work as disabled men. In the United States, disabled men earned 55 percent more than disabled women in 1994-95.
  • There are reports of high rates physical and sexual abuse against disabled women and girls living in institutions for the disabled. In some countries, disabled women living in institutions are abused at twice the rate as those living in the community.
  • In Africa, where the myth that having sex with a virgin can cure a person of HIV/AIDS, women and girls with disabilities are targeted for rape because they are presumed to be asexual and thus virgins.
  • The combination of discrimination on the basis of gender and disability results in low literacy rates for women and girls with disabilities and low rates of school attendance. UNESCO estimates that the overall literacy rate for persons with disabilities worldwide is 3 percent, and for disabled women and girls it is 1 percent. One source says that less than 2 percent of children with disabilities are attending any form of schools, but no gender breakdown of that number is available. In the U.S., disabled women are five times more likely than non-disabled women to have fewer than eight years of schooling. Particularly for girls who do not attend school, information on reproductive health is less available, leading to the unsurprising result in the U.S. that young women with disabilities are significantly more likely to be mothers three to five years after leaving school than non-disabled young women. Studies in the U.S. also show that disabled students experience higher rates of sexual harassment in schools, and disabled girls face higher rates than disabled boys.
  • Disability benefits are lower for disabled women than for disabled men in some countries, such as Canada. These benefits are tied to work and earning histories, thus penalizing women who face discrimination in the labor sector and lower wages than men.

Although human rights abuses against women and girls are rampant, they are largely ignored. Justice systems fail to accommodate disability, making it difficult for women to prove abuses of their human rights. For example, some courts will not entertain allegations of sexual violence brought by blind women, because of supposed difficulties in identifying the perpetrator. In terms of donor attention, bilateral assistance to address the needs of disabled people is rare, and poverty reduction strategies often ignore both the issues of disabled people and issues of gender.

Background on the Draft Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities

Since 2001, there has been serious movement toward an international treaty on disability rights. The General Assembly adopted resolution in 2001 which established an ad hoc committee to work on such a treaty. By July 2005, the ad hoc committee has had five major meetings and has produced a draft treaty covering a wide variety of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. The ad hoc committee’s sixth meeting takes place from August 1-12, 2005.

In terms of women’s rights in the draft convention, they are addressed in many of the articles (e.g., ones dealing with statistics and data collection, equality and nondiscrimination, violence, work, participation in political and public life, education, health care, privacy and family issues, and social security.) There is also a proposal that there be an additional article specifically on women’s rights to highlight the fact that disabled women suffer distinct discrimination from disabled men.

The United Nations "Enable" website has comprehensive information on the drafting process for the disability treaty.

The language of the current draft of the treaty must be drawn from four different documents that reflect the status of negotiations on various articles. They key documents are: