Take five: An intersectional approach to empowering women and girls with disabilities

Date: Wednesday, December 2, 2020

A.H. Monjurul Kabir, Senior Programme Adviser, Head of the Asia-Pacific and Least Developed Countries Section, and UN Women Global Lead on South-South and Triangular Cooperation. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
A.H. Monjurul Kabir is the UN Coordination Adviser on Gender Equality and Disability Inclusion. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

A.H. Monjurul Kabir is the UN Coordination Adviser on Gender Equality and Disability Inclusion. He leads UN Women’s Global Task Team on Disability Inclusion and Intersectionality. In 2019, 55 UN Women offices (in addition to our work through the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women)supported women and girls with disabilities across all areas of work through the provision of normative guidance, integrated policy advice, knowledge management, operational support and capacity development. In this interview, Mr. Kabir talks about the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls with disabilities and the need for an intersectional approach.


On 3 December, the United Nations marks the 'International Day of Persons with Disabilities'. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected diverse women and girls with disabilities?

The International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) promotes an understanding of disability issues and mobilizes support for the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in all aspects of society and development. This year’s theme is, “Building Back Better: toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 World.” Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on persons with intersecting dimensions of inequalities, including women with disabilities. This is because when crisis hits, those living with inequalities are even less equipped and less supported to cope with additional risks that a crisis like this brings.

Disability, gender and discrimination are inextricably interlinked. One in five women globally live with a disability. Women are often at increased risk of developing a disability for reasons, including discrimination in health care and violence against women. Women with disabilities are also three times more likely to be illiterate, and two times less likely to be employed or use the internet.

Meanwhile, everyday barriers such as lack of physical accessibility, affordability of healthcare, discriminatory laws and stigma, and access to basic hygiene measures, are life threatening in a pandemic.

What can be done to address their needs in COVID-19 response and recovery plans?

In addition to disability-sensitive policies and resources, governments should develop standalone disability-specific social protection schemes and budgets and consult people with disabilities at all stages of COVID-19 response and recovery plans — in policy development, programme planning and implementation. These expenditures must be tracked to ensure both accountability and sustainability.

Disability-related support services must also be classified as essential services.

Persons with disabilities and their families must at the very least be provided the same level of care and support during emergency situations to enable them to continue living independently. Health and education service providers should ensure that remote platforms are safe and accessible for girls and boys with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Psychological support should be available for caregivers.

The UN has developed guidance on disability-inclusive responsiveness to COVID-19 that can shape more agile systems to respond to complex situations, reaching the furthest behind first.

How does UN Women work on the ground to protect women and girls with disabilities? 

We are strengthening our global workforce’s understanding of, and ability to respond to the challenges faced by women and girls with disabilities, and ensuring that disability inclusion in our priority areas of work is informed by individuals and Organizations of Persons with Disabilities.

In the context of COVID-19, UN Women has been integrating coronavirus sensitization with existing ending violence against women awareness and economic empowerment activities in accessible formats and different languages. We are also providing psychological support and online capacity building to the women and girls with disabilities and carrying out rapid response surveys in countries including those in conflicts to assess the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls with disabilities and their specific livelihood and humanitarian needs.

How can gender and disability feature more routinely in efforts to end sexual harassment in workplaces and university campuses?

It is only by applying an intersectional and inclusive approach that policies can truly reflect the structural discrimination and barriers that women with disabilities face in workplaces and campuses. Effective policies, programmes and campaigns to end sexual harassment learn from, and meet the varied needs of women with disabilities in all their complexity and diversities. UN Women has recently developed a discussion paper that contributes to the development of intersectional approaches.

The needs, requirements and expectations of women with disabilities are varied: for example, captioning, sign language interpretation or communication aids are essential for some women; while information provided in easy-to-read format is important for others; and accompaniment by a person of their choice through any process of reporting or investigation of a violent incident are reasonable expectations for others. Some disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities, are linked to more stigma than others, rendering survivors less likely to find proportionate services.

What are the persistent barriers for women with disabilities seeking justice for sexual harassment and violence?

Women and girls with disabilities suffer up to three times greater risk of rape, and are twice as likely to be survivors of domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence (over a longer period and with more severe injuries) than women without disabilities.

However, UN Women's recent research shows that women with disabilities encounter specific barriers, including legal and accessibility barriers, when they seek justice for sexual harassment. Law enforcement and legal personnel tend to be ill-equipped to address violence against women with disabilities, and justice systems continue to be informed by negative stereotypes, prejudices and harmful myths that impede reporting, remedies or accountability. For example, justice sector actors may question the ability of women with disabilities to make judgements or harbour conscious and unconscious bias that they make unreliable witnesses.

Violence against women with disabilities is rarely reported, and when it is, survivors face obstacles such as forced institutionalization, forced isolation, and withholding of medication and tools that aid their mobility, vision, and hearing, among others. By reporting the violence they suffer, women with disabilities often risk revictimization.

There is a lot more work to be done. We must dedicate more resources and technical support, integrate innovative solutions through an intersectional lens, and develop additional normative guidance to create more enabling and accessible environments for persons with disabilities. We must do better in ensuring reasonable accommodation in workplaces and beyond. Only then will we be walking the talk.

Related resources

  • Check out our series of briefs on empowering women and girls with disabilities, including in the context of COVID-19.