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Working on women and disabilities in Palestine

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 18.09.2009:

Challenges of Equal Opportunity for Women with Disabilities in Palestine. From Rights to Reality

By Ola Abu Alghaib

It is widely acknowledged that, regardless of where in the world they live, women with disabilities are one of the most marginalised, neglected, violated, excluded and isolated groups in society. Women with disabilities throughout the world suffer manifold discrimination – female, poor, and disabled – compounded further by intersections of race and culture. Women with disabilities remain largely invisible and voiceless, ignored by national policies and laws, even though they face multiple forms of discrimination, structural poverty and social exclusion (UNFPA 2005). Their issues and needs are neglected within services and programmes across all sectors. They are excluded from social movements designed to advance the position of women and the position of people with disabilities. They are subject to oppression and exploitation in all areas of their lives. Women and girls with disabilities are the most vulnerable and least protected (WWDA 2002, UN ESCAP Workshop on Women and Disability 2003).

There are a number of international human rights instruments that delineate the clear and specific responsibilities of governments to address discrimination against women. Examples include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993), etc. However, despite many agreements embraced and treaties ratified by many states parties around the world, the reality is that in the early 21st century, disabled women throughout the world continue to experience serious violations of their human rights, as well as failures to promote and fulfil their rights.

Responsibilities of governments to address discrimination against women and girls with disabilities are clearly delineated in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006), which was signed by more than 80 countries on 30 March 2007. Article 6 of the Convention states:

“States Parties recognize that women and girls with disabilities are subject to multiple discrimination and in this regard shall take measures to ensure the full and equal enjoyment by them of all their human rights and fundamental freedoms.

States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure the full development, advancement and empowerment of women, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of the human rights and fundamental freedoms set out in the present Convention.”

As in other Arabic societies, discrimination against women still thrives within Palestinian society in spite of the efforts exerted towards women’s equality over the last decades. The discrimination against women with disabilities is even more profound. Most disabled women in our society remain hidden and silent, their concerns are unknown and their rights are overlooked. They continue to live under the double burden of being disabled and female. Prejudice continues to prevail within each category making disabled women one of the most marginalised groups in the society.

Discrimination can be so severe that it affects all aspects of life, including education, employment, economic status, marriage and family relations, health care, and health and human services. Even when women with disabilities do find work, it is usually low-paying, low- or no-status, and in poor working conditions. Disabled women in Palestine face numerous challenges. In the absence of well coordinated government policies aimed at integrating disabled people in mainstream activities, disabled women live under extremely difficult conditions, for not only are they women but most of them are in the rural areas. The women with disabilities in Palestine are discriminated against in every aspect of their lives. Discrimination deprives disabled women of vital life experiences, and therefore by denying them the opportunity to participate fully in community affairs they are deprived of equality of opportunity.

It is known that investing in the education and training of women with disabilities and promoting opportunities for their employment is sound economic and social policy. Gainfully employed women with disabilities contribute actively to the economy, but the reality in Palestine is still far from even heading towards this perspective. A baseline study conducted in 2008 by Stars of Hope Society, in coordination with AWRAD, found that only 126 women with disability out of 434 are employed. And very few of them enjoy equal opportunities.

Women with disabilities have negative experiences of participating in activities where they have not felt respected or have even felt humiliated. Such experiences have created distrust toward the civil society and what it can offer them; this reality has therefore led to a situation of “self-chosen isolation.” In general, girls with disabilities grow up in their families with the burden of a stigma: expect little of them. The perception that disabled women are inferior and of little value contributes greatly to their lack of self-esteem, and unfortunately the complexity of the political situation adds a great obstacle for the ability for women with disabilities to move around. Families tend to take that as an excuse to keep them home where it is safe and comfortable. Other major factors include the negative social attitudes and lack of awareness of women with disabilities about their rights which leads to inadequate communication skills and self-reflection. This discrimination leads to negligence, isolation, and lack of assistance. Lack of accessibility limits their access to information and proper medical care.

We cannot argue much about the fact that the Palestinian community is still known to be patriarchal; for there is a clear tendency of preference for men over women. Women with disabilities are even placed at a lower level when it comes to roles and decisions within the families. Furthermore, in addition to the prejudice and discrimination barrier, the inaccessibility of the physical environment (e.g., buildings, roads, and transport and toilet facilities) is a serious obstacle to disabled women working outside their homes.

There are 49,000 women with disabilities in Palestine. The majority are deprived of proper training opportunities and depend on their families for financial stability. Education levels and literacy rates of women with disabilities tend to be lower than those of men with disabilities. The estimated literacy rate for people with disabilities worldwide is 3 percent, whereas the rate for disabled women and girls is approximately 1 percent. Existing statistics on vocational training indicate that the percentage of women trainees is low.

Education and training are the keys to the advancement of women and girls with disabilities as they provide access to information. Furthermore, they enable women with disability to communicate their needs, interests, and experiences, bring them into contact with other students, increase their confidence, and encourage them to assert their rights. Without basic skills, their chances for employment are almost absent.

Next Steps

I believe that women with disability should not remain invisible in the arena of planning and formulating policies and programmes of poverty alleviation and development. The issue of Palestinian women with disabilities should be tackled within the overall framework of women’s development in the country. Mainstreaming of women with disabilities in education, training, and employment should be a priority action. Public awareness of the capabilities and dignity of women with disabilities should be boosted and their social integration should be promoted.

Women with disabilities have immense potential which remains untapped. This potential can be put to productive and profitable use to benefit the family, the society, and the country. It is said that a nation’s development is also measured by the ease with which it integrates the disabled into the mainstream society. As a criteria of development, the issue of considering the disabled as a neglected but extremely important sub-group of the population merits immediate and continuous attention. Enhancing social security by building, improving, and extending systems of social protection in Palestine is an important contribution to poverty reduction for women with disabilities. It is time now to move towards the rights-based approach when defining disability and setting up policies. It is known that most of the past and current policies in Palestine are guided by a medical and charitable approach to disability, which focuses on few benefits.

Another contributing factor is that in Palestine gate-keeping mechanisms are very limited and often reduced to medical check and certificates, carried out without a very clear framework (use of international classification such as WHO International Classification of Functioning), administratively processed in different institutions which decide whether persons with disabilities applying are entitled or not to certain support described in the law. As limited as the needs assessment is, the diversity of entitlements granted is also very limited, for two reasons. First, as most laws are based on a medical approach to disability, they do not focus on supporting the inclusion of persons with disabilities and therefore offer very little scope of support (exemptions, technical aids, and health insurance or pension benefit). Second, as the public sector does not provide gate-keeping mechanisms, it should allow steering the balanced distribution of social services at the territorial level, in accordance with the real needs of the users. Therefore, it should also allow concerned public authorities to target and allocate their resources (within a system of accountability) for the best outcome on the lives of people with disabilities.

Finally, I believe that equality should recognise equality of opportunity and of outcomes. This requires that any relevant restrictions or limitations that are caused directly or indirectly by a disability or the intersection of disability with gender, poverty, race, caste, and/or class should be remedied by appropriate modifications, adjustments, or assistance. Moreover, it requires affirmative action, reasonable accommodation, or special measures. The term access is not an act or state, but a liberty to enter, to approach, to communicate with, to pass to or from or make use of physical, environmental, and societal structures, systems and processes regardless of type and degree of disability, gender, or age.

Ola Abu Alghaib is chairwoman of Stars of Hope Society, Empowerment of Women with Disabilities, Palestine. She is also the Middle East Project Regional Coordinator for Handicap International, Amman.

TWIP September 2009

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