The living situations of women with disabilities were one of the focal topics of the Disabled Peoples International (DPI) Congress. Women with different disabilities from different continents exchanged information on their rights to reproduction, on the usage of prenatal diagnosis and preimplentation genetic diagnosis (PCD), their access to health services, their living situations and abilities in general, and on their access to education and possibilities for a secure income.
In recent years across all continents of the world, networks from women with disabilities have been set up. They work similarly to the Weibernetz and the federal networks of women with disabilities here in Germany. Often themselves disabled women, they work actively on an honorary basis or on paid projects and cooperate with movements for women and for people with disabilities, where these exist. They are contact persons partners of the government on questions concerning women with disabilities; they do public relations work; they organise seminars and meetings, and they inform women with disabilities about their rights.
The subjects these active women and networks are concerned with are the same all over the world. These subjects are: sexual violence, the opening up of women's refuges for women with disabilities, access to the labour market, to the health and educational systems, mobility etc. For so-called developing countries problems such as fighting poverty, access to water supplies, HIV/Aids, medical care etc., are added.
At the congress, the German representatives established contact with networking women from Australia, Korea, Canada, Kosovo, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and others. Other women, e.g. those from Thailand, are seeking to build networks.
Women with disabilities are confronted with the problem of sexual violence worldwide. According to an investigation by the Korean Network of Women with Disabilities, 49.5 % of all women with disabilities in Korea have experienced violence. As existing women's refuges are not barrier-free, organisations of women with disabilities have already bought and fitted out two houses to be used as refuges for women with disabilities.
The patriarchal structure of society - more or less strongly - favours violence against women. The effects of sexual violence are extreme. Apart from inducing trauma and the destruction of physical integrity, the experience of violence has an impact on the social integration of the woman concerned. One speaker from Togo (West Africa) reported that in Africa many women with disabilities are raped. After the deed, they are seen as unclean, respect towards them is minimized, as is the chance of finding a husband. Thus women with disabilities who have been raped have no social security at all.
Women with disabilities from all over the world complain about inaccessible doctor's surgeries and therapist's practices, or even the possibility of and the right to basic medical care. To make this problem public, women with disabilities from Nigeria have created a poster in co-operation with colleagues from the US. In the poster, different women from different countries describe their needs in reference to the health system.
Women with disabilities from poor regions of the world also complain about bad nutrition which leads to sickness and disabilities. One speaker from Egypt revealed that because of lack of vitamin A many women turn blind - this is because traditionally food which is good and rich in vitamins is distributed among the men. Women only receive the less nutritional remains. Additionally, there is a lack of iron in the food which leads to a physical weakening of the women. This in turn leads to more accidents in the household and at work. The result of such accidents is more cases of disability.
From the media we already know that HIV/Aids is a major problem in poorer regions. One speaker from Barbados reported that women with disabilities in particular are often HIV positive or sick with Aids, although in the Caribbean states they will usually not find partners. The speaker told further of a myth that if men sick with syphilis would sleep with a virgin, they would be cured. This leads to rapes by this group of men, of many women with disabilities, as it is assumed that the latter - being normally rejected as partners - are more likely to be virgins. As a consequence, they get syphilis or HIV and Aids.
In Egypt, it is common that women marry early and then have children. Only very few women use contraceptives, thus often one birth follows the next in close succession. This leads to extreme exhaustion and disabilities for many women at a young age.
In Australia, at the moment the problem of forced sterilisation of women with disabilities is being confronted.
For Germany, Martina Puschke from the Weibernetz described the problems for the areas of prenatal diagnosis and preimplentation genetic diagnosis (PGD). She showed clearly, that in regard to these technologies women have a special role. Increasingly, women are made to be responsible for the birth of an able-bodied and "healthy" child and are thereby encouraged to make use of all available diagnostic means. They are usually not informed that these examinations very often - with PID at any case - will lead to selection. Martina Puschke has clearly spoken against this selection.
According to the Egyptian colleague, in African states 85 % of women do not go to school. In Egypt, for example, it is boys who normally attend schools. Girls can only go to school, if there is enough money at home. Girls with disabilities enjoy even fewer possibilities of going to school. They are usually completely dependent on their families. Only 13 % of all women with disabilities in Egypt have a workplace and thus enjoy social independence. The rate of employment among men with disabilities is about 66 %.
In Korea, the situation with the labour market is equally bad. Women with disabilities receive less education. Only one woman with a disability in every eight is able to attend a higher school. And only 19 % of women with disabilities work, while 44 % of men with disabilities are in employment.
There was positive news from the speaker from India. She reported on the building up of self-help groups for women with disabilities. Financed with the help of banks, these women find strength in such groups and are able to train for simple or more complex work. They learn to make products for sale and to take up employment. Since 2000, 300 projects of this kind have been started.
The speaker from the United States informed us that in almost every country, there are international or national organisations which support people in setting up their own business. They carry out training exercises to prepare for this. However, women with disabilities are often excluded from those seminars. Therefore the speaker emphasised that as many corresponding organisations as possible, in the countries concerned, should be asked if the seminars are open for women with disabilities, and if not, they should be offered help to achieve this.
Embracing various subject areas, ambassadors from Canada, Australia, and Mexico had been invited to report on the progress of the work of the UN convention for the protection of human rights for people with disabilities. All of the ambassadors took with them important aims and ideas from the participants of the congress, among which was the demand from Sigrid Arnade, Germany, and from women from Canada, which met with general support, to mention the needs of women with disabilities in each article separately. The Mexican ambassador to the UN, Luis Alfonso de Alba, even said he hoped that the Convention could be adopted as soon as autumn 2005. Intensive work on the Convention is on-going.
Women's demands from the Conference
Disabled Peoples International (DPI) is a worldwide NGO and human rights organisation, after the spirit of the Self-Determined Living Movement, with agencies in more than 160 countries. DPI is the only international organisation in which the interests of people with disabilities are addressed all-embracingly by women and men with disabilities. As an organisation with a counselling function within the committees of the UNO, DPI has co-founded the World Action Programme for people with disabilities. Their representatives have also helped to co-produce the Standard Rules (of the Human Rights Charter). The committees of DPI must be filled with people with differing disabilities from different regions of the world. Equal participation of genders is also aimed at. You will find more information (in English, French, and Spanish) on the website of www.dpi.org.
Photos: Brigitte Faber
Photo of group Participants from Weibernetz: H.-Günter Heiden