Out of Excuses: The Time is Now to Bring Women with Disabilities into Humanitarian Response
By Sarah Costa, Executive Director
When a population is seen as vulnerable, the immediate instinct of the development and humanitarian community often is to protect. But what if, instead of protection, the instinct was to include, to engage, and to leverage people’s skills and capacities?
What if we thought about a vulnerable or marginalized population, not as one in need of rescue, but as one deserving of a seat at the table where decisions are being made that affect their lives?
I witnessed this shift firsthand last month when I traveled to London to take part in the first-ever Global Disability Summit, hosted by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), the Government of Kenya, and the International Disability Alliance.
This watershed event brought together government ministers, heads of donor agencies, leaders from the private sector, and civil society organization representatives from around the globe who work with issues pertaining to people with disabilities.
Most notably, the summit’s planning and execution were led in part by people with disabilities from the United Kingdom and other countries around the world.
The first day of the conference set a clear tone — with civil society issuing resounding calls for greater inclusion of disabled persons organizations (DPOs) in development and humanitarian response, stronger accountability of governments to implement the international Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and greater financial investment in DPO-led work.
The passion of the more than 700 delegates continued to energize me as I took part in a panel discussion focused on removing obstacles to implementation of legal and policy commitments on disability inclusion in humanitarian action.
One of my fellow panelists, Gaudence Mushimiyimana, executive director of the Rwandan Organization of Women with Disabilities, spoke from the heart about her own experience as a woman with a disability and the leader of a DPO. She addressed the enormity of the challenges of reaching populations with disabilities — and the urgency of bringing more voices like hers into the fold. “We are the experts,” she said.
Gaudence’s perspective echoes the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC)’s research that shows the expertise of DPOs — especially those led by women — remains largely untapped in humanitarian crises. This is unacceptable — they have an indispensable role to play in identifying the most marginalized populations and helping design systems and services to better reach and serve those populations.
This is particularly important because all the factors that are often part of the daily lived experience of people with disabilities — extreme poverty, social exclusion and isolation, loss of protective mechanisms, and limited mobility — have the potential to become infinitely worse when crisis hits.
Worse still, in a crisis women and girls with disabilities are largely cut off from the very programs and services that offer a critical lifeline of protection and support, namely gender-based violence prevention programs, reproductive health services, and women’s empowerment initiatives.
At WRC, we know how vital it is that displaced women with disabilities are part of humanitarian program planning and crisis response to ensure that marginalized populations can be reached more effectively. For years, we have championed incorporating their skills, capacities, and perspectives into the very fabric of humanitarian response.
WRC has a developed a growing network of partners comprising organizations of women with disabilities from conflict-affected countries. Their perspectives, skills, and knowledge have greatly informed and enriched our work.
Yet, merely creating space is not enough. In order to build on their contributions, we must all begin to address the legacy of exclusion these organizations have experienced by identifying opportunities for meaningful engagement, sustainable investments, and lasting commitments.
Both at this summit and through our ongoing work with populations with disabilities, women-led DPOs cite lack of funding as the most significant challenge for gaining a meaningful foothold in humanitarian response.
It is time for donor organizations to recognize the value these organizations bring and make investments accordingly — to do otherwise leaves millions of women and girls on the sidelines, endangering their lives and squandering limitless potential.
It is time for traditional humanitarian actors to seek advice and technical support from women-led DPOs and provide capacity-building opportunities to these organizations.
And it is time for all of us — including UN agencies and humanitarian and development actors — to recruit women with disabilities as community staff and partners.
We all have a role to play in changing this paradigm, and as such we all must be held accountable.
That is why WRC endorsed the Charter for Change — the official legacy document of the Global Disability Summit that lays out a global consensus for addressing the rights of people with disabilities around the world — and pledged our own commitments to this cause.
It is why we have been involved in the drafting of the new Inter-Agency Standing Committee Guidelines on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action — with a particular emphasis on gender. And it is why, last year, we published a Facilitator’s Guide on Strengthening the Role of Women with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action.
We have the information, the evidence, and the tools to create this transformational change in our sector. Now we need the funding and stronger accountability.
We are out of excuses. To quote the motto of the Global Disability Summit: “Now is the time.”