Take five: “Nothing about disability should be done without women with disabilities”

Date: Thursday, June 14, 2018

Ana Peláez Narváez, from Spain at UN Women headquarters in New York. Photo: UN Women/Susan Markisz
Ana Peláez Narváez. Photo: UN Women/Susan Markisz

Renowned disability rights activist, Ana Peláez Narváez, from Spain, is the first woman with disability to be elected to the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) on 7 June 2018. Blind at birth, Ms. Peláez Narváez strived for equality since a young age and went on to become the Executive Councillor for International Relations and External Development in the Spanish National Organisation of the Blind (ONCE), Executive Vice-President of the CERMI Women’s Foundation, and the European Disability Forum Vice-President and Chairperson of its Women’s Committee. She also served as a member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) from 2009 to 2016. She spoke to UN Women about her recent win, and what she hopes to achieve next.

You are the first woman with disability to be elected to the CEDAW Committee in 37 years. What was different about your candidacy this year, as compared to 2016, when you were a candidate for the same position?

In 2016, when I ran for this position to be part of the CEDAW Committee for the first time, I lost by one vote. There were many lessons learned from that process. First, the real impact of media and social media in the process. I wasn’t visible in the media back then. Second, I was one of many candidates from Spain and my candidacy was not a priority. The most important lesson of all was that I needed global support of the disability movement, especially from organizations of women with disabilities.

We were able to address these issues as I entered the election process this year. I wasn’t alone in this campaign. I was not just the Spanish candidate, I was the global candidate, with national organizations as well as all organizations in the global disability movement backing me. We also prepared a website, www.disabilityforcedaw.es where we had all kinds of information, about who I was, what my priorities were, and we had this information fully accessible to people with all kinds of disabilities.

What do you hope to achieve as a member of the CEDAW Committee?

There are 600 million women with disabilities in the world, but very few organizations specifically represent women with disabilities. Many disability rights organizations do not pay attention to the gender dimensions, and many women’s organizations don’t include women with disabilities. Women and the society in general need to understand that nothing about disability should be done without women with disabilities.

I want to bring disabilities perspective into the whole agenda of the CEDAW Committee, making women with disability visible in every single piece of work, not just a mention from time to time. I also want to look into how to overcome multiple forms of discrimination, not only discrimination faced by women with disabilities. There are multiple factors of exclusion that may be happening to a woman at the same time. How do we address that holistically? A migrant woman who is experiencing violence, may also be experiencing poverty. What if this woman now has a disability? What about discrimination that she faces at the same time because of her age, or illness, or religion?

I want to link the implementation of CEDAW with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to ensure that really no one is left behind. There are many indicators to monitor the implementation of CEDAW through the 2030 Agenda. We must also have a more coherent approach for different treaty bodies at the UN towards issues of women and women with disabilities. Disability issues must be part of key treaty bodies, such as CEDAW.

What are the unique challenges that women with disability face, when they are also experiencing gender-based violence, or when they are in politics?

The first and foremost challenge is that women with disabilities are not recognized as women. The society considers us as “disabled”. Both women’s movement and the disability movement consider us as disabled, but we are women too, we are girls too, this is part of our identity.

Ensuring that women with disabilities have real political participation and decision-making is another challenge. This is linked to the loss of legal capacity—the ability of a human being to access civil and justice systems. When States deny legal capacity to women with disabilities, they cannot even sign a document, or access justice. Sometimes, the capacity of taking day-to-day decisions is also taken away from them, because their family takes decision on their behalf.

With relation to gender-based violence, women with disabilities often cannot access the same services that are available to other women. We are told that the service providers do not have the necessary skills or knowledge to serve women with disabilities. In many countries, programmes to support women survivors of violence may not even be accessible for women with disabilities. In designing these programmes and services, we must ensure that all women are able to access them.

When and how did you start working on disability rights? What motivated you?

From the very beginning of my life, being blind and losing my mother made me realize that no one was behind me, and I needed to fight for real equality. When I was 13 years old, I decided to go to a regular school, for inclusive education. Until then, I was in a boarding school for blind children. Then I decided to go to Brussels, alone, for my higher studies.

I started working with the issue of women with disabilities in 2000 when I joined the Spanish National Organization of the Blind (ONCE). But it was a unique opportunity to have an organization like ONCE supporting me. Enabling meaningful political participation of women with disabilities is expensive, and that’s part of the problem.

Do you think we are making progress, and what’s driving the progress?

In the CRPD Committee, there used to be just one woman and 17 men. In the recent election, 6 more women have been elected to that Committee. None of the 23 members in the CEDAW Committee were women with disability, until now. These treaty bodies are fundamental for protecting the rights of women and women with disabilities. Their main responsibility is to monitor that governments who are part of these treaties actually implement their commitments in their countries. So yes, there has been tremendous progress in the recent years, and it’s driven by the empowerment of women with disabilities.

When I joined this work, did I think I will be elected to be part of the CEDAW Committee? No… it would have seemed impossible then. It has been a long process, but for me, being elected to the CEDAW Committee is one of our biggest collective achievements. It’s our collective fight and many women are next to me and I need to support them. My dream is to leave the CEDAW Committee with more women with disabilities there.