Women Representation in World Disability Forums Shrinking

Disability rights activist Abia Akram talks to ‘The News’

Islamabad

Pakistan’s voice of women with disability and known disability rights activist Abia Akram on Sunday expressed concern over the fact that the representation of women in international disability forums is shrinking.

She was referring to the recent elections of the Committee of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities held in New York during the Conference of State Parties in UN Headquarters from June 14-16, 2016 where no women was elected in the committee.

“The recent election of the Committee of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CPRD) held in New York has been very strange for us because three candidates were women and not one of them was elected,” she said.

According to her, the election results came as a wakeup call to the global disability movement. The UN’s CRPD is considered a critical tool to secure the rights of people with disabilities around the world. Abia says that the disability movement worked hard to achieve it. For the last decade it has undertaken crucial reviews which legally hold Member States to account, ensuring the human rights and fundamental freedoms for all people with disabilities around the world.

“Last week’s committee election was momentous in many ways. It saw Robert Martin from New Zealand, elected. Martin is the first person with intellectual disabilities to join CRPD’s membership. It also saw the first deaf sign language user elected, Valery Nikitich Rukhledev from the Russian Federation getting elected. But on a less positive note, the election was significant because for the first time, it saw no women elected onto its board,” she says.

Abia says that it is encouraging that the committee will be run by highly qualified 17 successful male committee members for the next four years. “However, in a world where women with disabilities can face a double discrimination, it is incredibly important that we’re able to hear their voices in the highest levels of governance, and we need to hear them in the UN committee tasked with addressing social inclusion,” she opined.

Talking about the local level, in countries such as Pakistan, she said that women with disabilities face double, or rather triple, discrimination for being disabled, being women and being poor. “Globally, we are two decades behind in terms of talking about the rights of women and girls with disabilities and without balanced gender representation on the panel, there is a real risk that issues affecting women with disabilities may not be well understood, and this depth of understanding is the only way we can fully help them realize their rights,” she said.

Abia said that as with most gender imbalance, no single entity could be blamed for CRPD elections. “We all have to take responsibility to play our part. This year we only saw three women put forward for election by nation states so the pool was already very limited. This means that inclusion could not be taken for granted at any level. We need to not only make sure that women’s voices are heard but also that steps are taken to actively promote their participation at grassroots to national and global level. Because if you’re not having people participate at local level in decisions that affect them, it’s ultimately going to lead to the gap that we’re experiencing now at the national and global level.”

She said that at civil society level we need to learn to work with national governments locally to help them build the capacity of women with disabilities so they are able to navigate the labyrinth that is the international system, the UN and its Member States.

“In turn, the complexity of the UN – its systems, languages and processes also don’t help because it favours those who engage with it regularly and so it’s really difficult for smaller organisations to properly influence the UN processes and outcomes. And though the CRPD (Article 34(4)) requires governments to consider gender balanced representation as they vote for committee members, this measure has clearly fallen short. We believe that introducing a process to ensure gender balance on all UN committees may better reflect the global vision we all share.”

Talking about number of women disabilities and their situation in Pakistan, she said that considering the estimation of 2010 within the global population, more than a billion people are living with some form of disability, or about 15 per cent of the world’s population. “Women outnumber men, as in the developing countries, women constitute up to three quarters of all persons with disabilities. Between 65 per cent and 70 per cent of these women with disabilities live in rural areas.”

According to her, Pakistan has a population of 1.8 million of which persons with disabilities make up 10 per cent. “They are living in the most vulnerable conditions which makes everyday living a challenge in itself. In this situation, persons with disabilities are excluded from the mainstream of education, health and development.”

She said that women with disabilities are disadvantaged in several key areas when compared with other women, men with disabilities, and the society as a whole. “These women face a triple handicap and discrimination due to their disability, gender and developing world status. At the same time, stigma remains in society at large, within communities, and even, in many cases of uneducated segments of society, within families who see disabled women as a loss of productive potential and a drain on family resources. So, while on the one hand, the strong cultural family network ensures their financial security, on the other, the stigma often results in their remaining invisible members of society.”

Commenting on the government plans to establish National Commission on the Rights of Persons with Disability, she said that there is a real need to establish the Commission with the equal representation of women with disabilities. “It is critical to remember that persons with disabilities amongst the most likely to live in poverty, to be denied development rights, their right to makes choices over their bodies, to achieve justice and remedies when experiencing gender based violence, to enjoy education, meaningful and decent work, to control resources and to participate in public life.”

She said that government policies that privatize public services, reduce the commons and value economic growth over human rights have a devastating impact on persons with disabilities particularly women with disabilities.

On the family level, she requested the families to accept the disabilities as different life style. “My message for women with disability is that they need to be proud on their disability. It is their identity as women and as human being. It is important to think what we can contribute for those who are confined in homes and living life like prisoners. Abia urged for media’s support to achieve the cause.

By: Myra Imran

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