The Rights of Women and Girls with Disabilities in Kenya and India Matter!

Women Enabled International
Rewriting the Narrative
6 min readSep 25, 2020

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By Shubha Nagesh, Mildred Omino, Seble Frehywot, Yianna Vovides, and Chulwoo Park

Magenta sign on green grass, with the disability symbol, the text “Step free route” and an arrow pointing to the right
Photo of a magenta sign on green grass, with the disability symbol, the text “Step free route” and an arrow pointing to the right. Credit: Yomex Owo Via Unsplash.

Persons with Disabilities (PWD) constitute the largest minority population in the world- 80% of these people live in developing countries and more than half are women. Kenya and India are categorized as Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs), precisely the United Nations place the two countries under developing countries category where majority of Persons with Disabilities live. Disabled women are in very bleak situations globally and they almost represent 15% of the global population. It is known that women and girls with disabilities face a higher proportion of gender-based violence, sexual abuse, and neglect (Valentine et al., 2019). Physical environment, infrastructure, facilities, and services, depending on how they are planned and built, can impede or enable access, participation, and inclusion of women with disabilities in society. Moreover, their overall literacy rates are lower and unemployment rates are higher as compared to male counterparts (UNESCO, 2018). In all this, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities clearly elaborates and specifies the rights of women and girls with disabilities (Steinert et al., 2016).

Research indicates that women and girls with disabilities are subjected to multiple layers of discrimination based on their gender and disability and often face “double discrimination” (Kabia et al., 2018). While there are several issues affecting women and girls with disabilities, lack of access to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights disproportionately affects women and girls with disabilities, in particular the following rights: access to health care, decision making on family planning and legal capacity, marriage and family, ownership of property, violence against women with disabilities, the institutionalization of girls with disabilities, and access to justice. The persistent failure to recognize the intersectionality between gender and disability has led to inaccessible sexual reproductive health rights, which escalates to other rights mentioned above. Globally, the invisibility, lack of acceptance, stigma and discrimination experienced by girls and women with disabilities can be addressed if people around them adopt radical attitudinal shifts towards inclusion and accommodation. More than anything, the stigma and discrimination faced by girls with disabilities from people they know–families, neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces- can be eradicated if they adopt inclusive practices that bring out the potential in young girls with disabilities.

The persistent failure to recognize the intersectionality between gender and disability has led to inaccessible sexual reproductive health rights.

As per the Census 2011, 44.1% of the disabled population in India are women, and many of the girls with disabilities are more likely to stay home. They neither attend schools nor participate in intervention centers, or other platforms where they could interact with their peers. Two sources of stress for most parents remain menstruation and marriage, both of which are associated with significant stigma and become causes for social isolation and discrimination (Dawn, 2014). In India, the exclusion of girls and young women with disabilities is persistent and worsens where societal and cultural norms that add to the stigma and discrimination become more pronounced and visible. Societal norms, such as beliefs that girls and women with disabilities are asexual, unable to raise families or offer parental care to their children, are infantilized or have pervasive sexuality have negative implications on equitable access to sexual reproductive health rights. Often their unique needs are largely ignored owing to such societal norms. The reality does not quite reflect the Rights of Person with Disability Act 2016, particularly the sexual and reproductive rights of women in section 25.

More than anything, the stigma and discrimination faced by girls with disabilities from people they know–families, neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces- can be eradicated if they adopt inclusive practices that bring out the potential in young girls with disabilities.

The lack of knowledge, low awareness, poor access, and deficient utilization of services by women with disabilities are made worse particularly in remote and rural areas. The overall situation in rural areas is manifested by underdeveloped infrastructure and lack of social amenities which compound the already adverse situation of girls and women with disabilities. Most of girls and women with disabilities in rural areas do not get opportunity to access basic rights such as education, health and even information necessary for critical decisions about their sexual reproductive health. According to the 2019 Kenya’s Population and Housing Census preliminary reports, there are 523,883 women with disabilities in Kenya. However, this data does not seem to reflect the realities on the ground due to fewer registrations, invisible disabilities, stigma, low awareness, and inadequate training of census administrators on disability. Reports by the WHO and the World Bank confirmed the gap in disaggregated data in disability (Owino, 2020). The Reproductive Health Bill of 2019, which is yet to be passed by parliament, has a strong definition of informed consent to ensure that women themselves can make the decisions around reproductive health procedures. However, under the section on abortion, the bill still requires guardians or parents to make the decision for a “mentally unstable person” — which often includes women with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities — to undergo what amounts to a forced abortion. Furthermore, the bill does not address the issue of sterilization without the informed consent of women with disabilities and an all-too-common occurrence in Kenya as well as a serious human rights violation, including a violation of the right to find a family and to be free from torture or ill-treatment.

There is an urgent need for a holistic radical shift in society to remove structural and systemic barriers that hinder meaningful inclusion of girls with disabilities. Investment in their future is worth every penny, and can transit them from their homes to schools, colleges, and employment opportunities. Girls with disabilities are potential change makers, sources of income and support to the family, and capable of leading economically and socially productive lives. Slowly but steadily, key people in the community like health personnel, educationists, and the youth should work to ensure girls and women with disabilities realize their potential by creating safe spaces for them.

There is an urgent need for a holistic radical shift in society to remove structural and systemic barriers that hinder meaningful inclusion of girls with disabilities. Investment in their future is worth every penny, and can transit them from their homes to schools, colleges, and employment opportunities.

Finally, investments should be made with deliberation to promote accessibility in society, schools, offices, and public conveniences. Girls with disabilities should be able to navigate society and their community with ease, dignity, and respect–so they can get past inhibitions and reluctance to create their identity and demonstrate positive impact, all to ensure they fully enjoy their rights and make the way easier for those after them. The world can uphold disability equity if community leaders and policymakers are all involved in different ways by ensuring that they take responsibility in upholding the rights of girls and women with disabilities in all spheres of life including but not limited to education, health and economic empowerment.

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About the authors

Dr. Shubha Nagesh works for The Latika Roy Foundation, Dehradun, India, with children and young adults with developmental disabilities.

Ms. Mildred Omino is an Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity with a fellowship focus on Reproductive Health Equity for Girls and Women with Disabilities. She is a Kenyan Gender and Disability Rights Activist.

Dr (Prof). Seble Frehywot is the cofounder of IT for Health and Education Systems Equity initiative, Associate Professor of Global Health and Director of Health Equity Online Learning at the George Washington University.

Dr (Prof). Yianna Vovides is the cofounder of IT for Health and Education Systems Equity initiative, serves as Director of Learning Design and Research at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS), Professor for the Master of Arts in Learning, Design, and Technology (LDT) program at Georgetown University, and Curriculum Director for LDT, Georgetown University.

Dr (Prof). Chulwoo Park is faculty of IT for Health and Education Systems Equity initiative, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Health and Recreation at San José State University.

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Women Enabled International
Rewriting the Narrative

Advancing human rights at the intersection of gender and disability.