Thank you Mr./ Madam Chair.
Human Rights Watch welcomes the opportunity to provide input for this Day of General Discussion on Women and Girls with Disabilities.
Abuses against women and girls with disabilities is a key priority for Human Rights Watch, and we have documented a number of violations against them, including sexual and gender-based violence, barriers to access to justice, and involuntary sterilization and other discrimination in reproductive health care and HIV services.
We would like to focus our intervention on reproductive health care services for women and girls with disabilities.
In many countries, women with disabilities face ignorance, discrimination and verbal abuse from health care personnel. During our research in northern Uganda, for example, a nurse admonished a woman with a physical disability who was unable to climb onto a bed for examination, saying “How did you get on the bed where you got pregnant?” In research in Argentina in 2010, Human Rights Watch found that women and girls with disabilities were all but invisible in the reproductive health system. There was also a lack of accessible information produced about contraception, and for women with physical disabilities, hospital buildings and facilities were often inaccessible. Similarly, women and girls with disabilities are less likely to receive information about HIV prevention and safe sex, and are less likely to have access to prevention methods such as condoms. Instead, they are shut out of sexual health education under the assumption that individuals with disabilities are not sexually active.
To address these barriers, the Committee should urge governments to ensure that reproductive health services are available and accessible for women and girls with disabilities, and that information about health issues reaches women and girls with disabilities in accessible formats. Governments should also combat stigma and discrimination through awareness raising programs and training of health care workers.
On the issue of involuntary sterilization, the case of 11-year old Angela from Australia, who has severe intellectual and physical impairments, illustrates some of our key concerns. A judge ordered that Angela’s uterus be removed on the grounds that it was in her "best interests" to have a hysterectomy.
The decision to start a family is a deeply personal one. Also, few of us begin thinking about planning a family at the age of 11, let alone make life-changing decisions about our future reproductive needs and desires.
But for girls with disabilities, the decision to have children can be taken away from them before they reach an age when they can maturely reflect on its significance. In Australia, as in many other countries, parents of girls with disabilities can apply for court orders to allow the involuntarily sterilization of their child, even a child that young. The laws treat people with disabilities differently, and courts have the power to make decisions for them that have life-altering effects on their future.
In many of the cases that come before the courts, the motivation for sterilization is not malevolent or ill-intentioned. Parents of girls with disabilities face difficult decisions in addressing their child's transition to puberty and menstruation, and the decision to sterilize is not one that is taken lightly.
Regardless, forced sterilization of women and girls with disabilities is a form of violence against women and should end. In a recent report on people with disabilities in healthcare settings, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez recognized forced sterilization as an act of violence, a form of social control, and a violation of the right to be free from torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment.
Sterilization is not a substitute for proper education about family planning, the use of reversible contraceptive measures, and support during menstruation.
The Committee should urge governments to introduce legislation banning sterilization of women and girls, including women and girls with disabilities, without their free and informed consent.
It is crucial that such legislation recognize that the rights of women and girls with disabilities to have children should not be taken from them because of misguided beliefs about menstrual management, the "burden" on their families and the community, or their ability to raise a child.
Every woman and girl has a right to bodily integrity, regardless of their disability. Every woman and girl should be able to have access to reproductive health care and have the choice to become a mother when she grows up. This is not a matter of convenience; it's a matter of rights.