In February 2019, the Women with Disabilities India Network (WWDIN), coordinated by the Shanta Memorial Rehabilitation Centre, submitted an Alternative Report on Article 6 of the UNCRPD to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Our report was prepared in response to the Initial Report submitted by the Government of India on progress towards meeting its commitments to the UNCRPD. In April, a team of four women with disabilities from WWDIN travelled to Geneva to present the report’s findings. This was the first such engagement of its kind for women with disabilities in India.
The Alternative Report is the product of two years of data collection (2017 and 2018) from consultations with 441 women with disabilities in 23 states of India. Women with disabilities are one of the most vulnerable and invisible sections of society in India. Women with disabilities are marginalised in different ways related to education, livelihood and access to health and other services leading to different forms of gender and disability-based violence within families and communities.
‘…the distance of educational institutions from home also has a specific effect on girls’
The report appreciates the positive initiatives taken by the Government of India such as the passage of the Right to Persons with Disabilities Act 2016. The India Country Report has extensive listings of legal provisions, schemes and programmes for persons with disabilities in India. However, little data is provided about differential access women with disabilities have to these provisions. One of the reasons for this is that there is no coordination on issues of women with disabilities, who are relegated to the Disability Department by the Women and Child Development Department and often times overlooked. As a result, women with disabilities continue to remain far from achieving either de-facto or de-jure equality. The recognition of the legal capacity of women is partial, and this can be seen in old and even new legislation such as the newly introduced Mental Health Care Act (2017).
Our research revealed that women with disabilities are consistently marginalised in education and employment, with low enrolment and work force participation. An insufficient number of schools in rural areas, where the vast majority of disabled people live, affects access to education; in particular, there are low enrolment numbers for girls with disabilities.
‘In practice women with disabilities have effectively no access to the justice system.’
Education of disabled girls is also affected by factors like poverty, adolescence and puberty; the distance of educational institutions from home also has a specific effect on girls as they are thought to be more vulnerable during long commutes than their male counterparts. The distance between home and school along with poor commuting facilities is a crucial factor in determining dropout rates among disabled girls from educational institutions. This is compounded by lack of accessible infrastructural and residential facilities.
Our findings show that women with disabilities are also particularly vulnerable to violence both in domestic and public spaces. Much of this violence is undocumented and unrecognised as policies and practices in India fail to address specific barriers faced by women with disabilities, particularly in response to gender-based violence and violations of sexual and reproductive rights. Gender-based violence against women with disabilities takes many unique forms and includes violence that is perpetuated by stereotypes that attempt to dehumanise or infantilise, exclude or isolate them, and target them for sexual and physical abuse. Many women with disabilities experience gender-based discrimination in the private sphere, ranging from harassment and emotional abuse to rape and physical violence. Women with disabilities in India also face violence at the hands of intimate partners, including husbands and their families.
Women with disabilities—particularly women with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities—are disproportionately subjected to practices such as forced or coerced sterilisation, contraception, and abortion. Frequently, when these women are minors or are deprived of legal capacity, guardians, parents, or doctors may make the decision on their behalf. Women with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities face discrimination in the form of continued institutionalisation in state- and privately-run care homes and hospitals. Indian Laws however do not take cognisance of the special types, intensity and magnitude of violence perpetuated against women with disabilities. While some laws address violence against women with disabilities in institutional settings, in practice women with disabilities have effectively no access to the justice system.
The most obvious barriers to equality before the law in terms of disabled women’s access to the justice system are physical access, communication barriers, and financial constraints. Current policies and practices in India addressing violence against women fail to address the unique causes and consequences of gender-based violence against women with disabilities. For instance, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 does not address violence against women with disabilities.
While in Geneva last month, the WWDIN team presented our findings during two interactions with the CRPD – one with the entire committee and a second meeting with committee member Mr. Jun Ishikawa. In both our engagements, we were able to impress on the CRPD committee members the violations of the rights of women with disabilities in India, the roots of these problems, and their varied nature. The committee members asked pertinent questions, asking for clarification on several points and duly noted that there is a need to engage more proactively on issues of violence against women with disabilities. The outcome of the pre-session has been favourable as the List of Issues mentions the violations of rights of women with disabilities and enjoins the Indian state to be more proactive in addressing the concerns of women with disabilities across the country.
This article was written collaboratively between Nandini Ghosh, Assistant Professor at the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata, and Reena Mohanty, Programme Officer, Shanta Memorial Rehabilitation Centre, Odisha.