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Gender and disabilities in Palestine

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 18.09.2009:

Gender and Disabilities: Marginal Issues in Palestinian Development and Rights Initiatives

By Lamis Abu Nahleh. Ph.D

Under the heading “Diseases” in the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) summary of the final results of the Population, Housing and Establishment Census 2007, we learn that the disability rate in the West Bank (WB), excluding Jerusalem, is 5.3 percent of the total population. The lack of data on disability in the Gaza Strip (GS) within the results can raise the question of the possible marginalisation of both the Gaza Strip and people with disabilities, particularly since all other results are broken down by region (WB and GS). Of a total of 107,785 disabled persons in the WB, 55,557 are males and 52,228 are females. If the total population of the WB is 2.4 million people divided equally by sex, then a question is to be raised about the missing number of disabled females. Is this figure representative of the disabled females? Are there disabled females hidden or disclaimed? One assumption may be the lack of gender awareness on behalf of the data collector. Another is possibly the negligence of disabled girls and the lack of interest in early diagnosis and intervention. In cases of meagre resources, boys might have been prioritised to receive early care and attention. It is also possible that due to social stigma associated with disability and its impact on the marriageability of siblings, especially sisters, disabled females are not counted or are disclaimed in surveys.

The 2007 census results also show that of the total population of disabled people, 30.6 percent are illiterate, 31.6 percent never enrolled in school, 34.1 percent enrolled and left, and only 15.4 percent enrolled and graduated, 23.0 percent never married, 20.1 percent are employed, 14.7 percent are students, 45.5 percent have governmental health insurance, 13.1 percent have UNRWA health insurance, more than 70 percent have access to rehabilitation services, and about 40 percent receive welfare assistance.

These figures are not broken down by sex, which does not tell us about the gender gap between disabled females and males though it is expected to be in favour of males.

Statistical data are indicators of the discrimination that befalls disabled persons indicating that they are deprived of life opportunities equal to their non-disabled counterparts and show as well the gender-based discrimination within the disabled group themselves. This gives partial evidence that in Palestine, like in some other countries in the world, disability is still a peripheral issue.

However, some progress in work with people with disabilities has been achieved in the past two decades beginning with the birth of the Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) model in the WB and GS replacing the charity approach to disability. As a consequence of the increasing numbers of disabled persons, victims of the Israeli occupation policies, disability has become more visible and addressing disability needs has become more of a rights-based issue than a charitable one. The socio-political conditions of the period promoted the adoption of the CBR model. Introducing the model into Palestinian society required cooperation between Diakonia/NAD, the initiator of the idea, and Palestinian experts and social movement groups and activists. Two research activities formed the doorway to a new phase in disability work. The first is a series of community survey studies conducted by Rita Giacaman et al in the WB and the GS between 1989 and 1995 to locate disabled individuals, map the available services and resources, and learn about the challenges facing them and their carers. These studies remain pioneering in pointing out the gender impact of disability. The most significant findings indicated that female members of the family, primarily mothers and sisters of the disabled family members, suffer the double discrimination of gender and disability, bear the whole burden of care, and are furthermore socially, culturally, and psychologically stigmatised. Mothers in particular are blamed for bringing disabled children into this world.

Since then the efforts of the CBR programme have been concentrated on developing the CBR model through practical work and scientific research based on community needs. This included conducting a study to measure the impact of CBR work on the targeted beneficiaries, their families, and their communities ten years after its initiation. A second study that marked the threshold of a new phase in CBR work was intended to assess the project’s sensitivity to gender and the degree of its integration in their work. The study “Promoting the Status of Gender in the Community Based Rehabilitation Program in Palestine” conducted by Lamis Abu Nahleh (2003) showed that CBR gave disabled individuals a chance for better life opportunities, facilitated their mobility and familial and social integration, gave them better access to services, and treated both sexes equally. However, the study reiterated some of the findings of the initial community surveys in terms of who mainly carries the burden of caring. It found that due to lack of sufficient knowledge in gender work, CBR workers reinforced the traditional gender roles of males and females through their activities; they primarily targeted mothers and sisters assisting them to help and serve their disabled children, supporting them with knowledge and information, and giving them practical and emotional support, which unfortunately placed all the responsibility upon them since fathers and brothers are not targeted particularly to share the burden. On the community level, men are targeted as decision makers and women as volunteers in community work and services, an extension to their mothering and caring role.

Building on this crucial study, the CBR programme reviewed their progress indicators with a gender lens, and added a few. They emphasised particularly the involvement of fathers in caring for the disabled persons as a major progress indicator and the extent to which mothers involve their male children in doing household chores as another. They also conducted several training workshops on integrating gender in the projects’ work, following which the participants were required to devise a strategic plan and evaluate their work using the gender concepts and tools introduced in the training. After the training workshop it conducted, a Women’s Affairs Technical Committee (WATC) gender trainer wrote an article in Women’s Voice valuing the contact WATC had during the training experience and committing to a more comprehensive approach to gender work in the future, an approach which includes disability and gender as an integral part of policy development and gender programming.

A quick overview of development and rights-based initiatives (policies, projects, programmes) gleaned by leafing through some documents or double-clicking home pages of a non-representative sample of organisations and institutions reveals that disability as an issue is barely remembered and the disabled persons remain a deprived, marginalised group, if not isolated and excluded from the vast majority of these initiatives. Specifically, it appears that disability has been, to a large extent, excluded from mainstream legislation, absent from most research and studies produced, excluded from national plans and programmes and not mainstreamed into other programmes that target special groups within the society.

The PNA constitution/basic law stipulates that all Palestinians are equal in front of the law irrespective of race, colour, religion, sex, or disability. The PNA also issued and ratified the Disability Law. Though it is meant to be progressive in nature, it is vertical rather than cross-cutting and thus gets separated from all other laws that should also protect the rights and interests of disabled citizens as full citizens.

Another recent and eminent PNA document is the Palestine Reform Development Plan 2009. The plan does not include disability or target the disabled in any of the sectors including the health sector. In reality, apart from the programmes and projects that are disability-specific, like those provided by the Ministry of Social Affairs, the General Union of Disabled Palestinians and Medical Relief, and, of course, CBR, there appears to be almost no initiative – social, economic, political, legal, or cultural – among the 17 organisations and institutions that were surveyed that include the disabled persons, particularly disabled women and girls, or that targets them directly or indirectly.*

The recently published mapping study of the status of disability rights and advocacy programmes in the WB (by British charity UNIAS) is another example of the marginalisation of the GS. Though it is a rich, informative study and presents invaluable findings, it does not consider women/gender specificity of disability as an important factor in any sector, such as that of social attitudes and culture. Nor does it list any of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs or women’s NGOs and centres to be involved as potential stakeholders, which relieves them from the responsibility towards disability.

Several other research studies were conducted to assess the gender impact of the Israeli occupation, the war and warlike conditions it brought about under which Palestinian girls, women, female and male youth, and children live. The Amnesty International study (2005), which set out to examine the impact of the Israeli occupation, war, and conflict conditions, as well as patriarchal control of women, points to the burden placed on women, emphasises births and infant deaths at checkpoints, and the obstacles facing access to (maternal and reproductive) health care and services. The UNIFEM study “Voicing the Needs of Women and Men in Gaza” (2009) conducted in the aftermath of the Israeli war on the GS, also reveals that women bear extra productive and reproductive burdens, and that although they suffer the same level of psycho-social trauma as men, they do not get to the available psycho-social services because of lack of money and accessibility. The study points out that gender and generation underlie the discrimination found in resource allocation among household/family members when their economic and financial resources are scarce. The World Bank study, “The Impact of Israeli Mobility Restrictions and Violence on Gender Relations in Palestinian Society: 2000-2007” conducted by the Women’s Studies Institute provides a vast space for essential issues that impact women, including poverty, the status of youth and youth services, gender-based violence, both political and domestic, among other issues. Last but not least is Johnson’s study of unmarried women in Palestine (2008-2009), which surveys their opportunities in education, work, marriage, the impact of “bodies and borders” restrictions, and the crises they face in the context of regional and Palestinian discourse.

These studies highlight crucial issues that ought to be considered in policy and planning design of future projects. However, they do not address in a fair way the gender impact of disability, though disabled women (and men) suffer stricter mobility restrictions, are more vulnerable to gender violence of all kinds, are more disadvantaged in all aspects of safety, life opportunities, and access to services. If they adopted an integrated and more inclusive approach, these studies would be even more comprehensive and useful.

It is my concern that disability is still treated as a vertical issue, addressed only by the special programmes committed or mandated to it. It can also mean that the disability work has not yet advanced to be included into the mainstream research, policy development, and national programmes. Palestine has taken large steps in development despite the obstacles along the way, but more concerted efforts must be exerted to achieve equal rights and opportunities for all its citizens irrespective of race, colour, religion, sex, and disability.

*Seventeen organisations and societies of various ideological-cultural backgrounds were consulted through their home pages and other available information on the Internet to see if they integrate or mainstream disability or target the disabled persons directly. Here, I would like to express my appreciation to Samah Nayfeh, a supporter of the disabled perrsons, who assisted me in searching the Internet and other sources.

Special appreciation goes to Ghada Harami, the deputy representative of Diakonia/NAD in the region and director of the CBR programme, for her invaluable feedback and guidance in writing this article. This article would have been very different without her critical eye for disability issues.

Dr. Lamis Abu Nahleh is a gender and development specialist. She is a professor and researcher at Birzeit University, Palestine. Her research areas are in gender and various sectors including, among others, the family and the household, education and vocational education, violence against women, micro-credit and micro-enterprise, and disability. Her professional experience is also in the area of gender integration into policy, planning, and evaluation of development projects and programmes.

TWIP September 2009

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