Women suffer from double discrimination by virtue of their sex, as well as their disability. This results in many women and young girls being denied their basic human rights.
The combination of male preference in many cultures and the universal devaluation of disability can be deadly for disabled females. Selective abortion is a related reproductive rights issue of great concern to women with disabilities. Today, in both industrialized and developing nations with access to reproductive technology, it is becoming easier to utilize selective abortion if a foetus is considered "imperfect" by medical profession's or society's standards. Legislation which permits sterilization of people with disabilities, threatens both the rights of disabled women to procreate and the very existence of children born with disabilities. Certain countries have laws which mandate the forced sterilization of persons with genetic defects. In 1996, the American Congress amended the law to include forced sterilization as grounds for refugee status.
In developing countries, women are too often denied access to education, rehabilitation, labour protection, and health care because of cultural preferences for males. It is seen as a waste of resources to help disabled women become productive members of society. Consequently, women with disabilities are the last priority in these countries, and are condemned to live their lives knowing that they will not improve. Disabled women's lack of access to health care will aggravate their disability and make it difficult for them to be rehabilitated quickly; this in turn, ensures that their positions will not improve.
Violence perpetrated against women is one of the major causes of disability among women in developing countries. Moreover, women who are already disabled are even more vulnerable to violence. Rape of women and girls in situations of armed conflict, whether civil or international, constitutes by definition a grave breach of international human rights and humanitarian law. Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that "…women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault." Article 147 includes in the list of acts constituting grave breaches of the Convention "…wilfully causing great suffering of serious injury to body or health."
These violations of the rights of women with disabilities have led to mobilisation for their cause. For the first time, hundreds of women with disabilities joined non-disabled women in Beijing, China for the UN Fourth World Conference on Women and specifically addressed issues of particular concern to women with disabilities. Two hundred women with disabilities and their allies from over thirty nations at the First International Symposium on Issues of Women with Disabilities outside of Beijing the day before the opening ceremony for the NGO Forum. This meeting marked the largest international gathering of women with disabilities anywhere, ever. Armed with a commitment to the ideals of inclusion, freedom and independence for women with disabilities, activists worked to translate into action workable strategies for change. In the wake of the NGO forum, international groups such as Women's International Linkage on Disability (WILD) were formed to work on local and international disability rights issues affecting women.
International instruments have also been adopted, and one of the main challenges has been to agree on a common definition of discrimination against women through these instruments, as States do not all agree on what constitutes discrimination. Roles may be assigned to women that vary from culture to culture, and these different cultural roles may or may not be discriminatory from one culture to the next.
Rule 9.3 of The Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities provides that States "…should promote measure to change negative attitudes towards marriage, sexuality and parenthood of persons with disabilities, especially of girls and women with disabilities, which still prevail in society." (emphasis added).
Article 45 of the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons speaks of the special situation of women with disabilities. It speaks of social, cultural and economic obstacles that affect the health of women. Disabled women have a lack of access to health care, vocational training and employment.
More general human rights instruments or instruments pertaining to women are also applicable to women with disabilities.
The second paragraph of the Charter of the United Nations provides that the people of the United Nations are determined "…to reaffirm their faith in fundamental human rights in the dignity and worth of the person (and in) the equal rights of men and women…." Article 1 (3) sets out one of the purposes of the United Nations as: "…promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without discrimination as to (…) sex…" (emphasis added).
Article 13 calls for the General Assembly to initiate studies and to make recommendations for the purpose of "…assisting in the realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to (…) sex…" (emphasis added). Article 55 (c) provides that the United Nations shall promote "…universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to (…) sex…" (emphasis added). Furthermore, article 56 states that "…all members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in co-operation with the Organisation for the achievement of the purposes set forth in Article 55." As recognized since the 1970 Declaration on Principles of International Law, this creates a Charter-based duty to respect and to observe human rights.
The Preamble of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women states that "…discrimination against women violates the principles of equality of rights and respect for human dignity, is an obstacle to the participation of women, on equal terms with men, in the political, social, economic, and cultural life of their countries, hampers the growth of the prosperity of society and the family and makes more difficult the full development of the potentialities of women in the service of their countries and of humanity." The Convention is also concerned that women in poverty have the least access to food, health, education, training, and opportunities for employment and other needs.
Article 1 gives a definition of discrimination against women: "the term "discrimination against women" shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field".
Article 2 (a) provides that States Parties undertake to "…embody the principle of equality of men and women in their national constitutions or other appropriate legislation if not yet incorporated therein and to ensure, through law and other appropriate means, the practical realisation of this principle." Article 2 (b) states that States Parties undertake "…to adopt appropriate legislative and other measures, including sanctions where appropriate, prohibiting all discrimination against women."
Different areas are covered in the convention: education (Article 10), employment (article 11), access to health care (article 12), and civil rights (article 15).
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights specifically guarantees certain rights to women, lists a broad spectrum of rights to be applied equally to men and women, and prohibits all discrimination based on sex. Article 2 states that the rights recognised in the Covenant are to be recognised "…without distinction of any kind, such as (…) sex(…) or other status" (emphasis added). The term other status may apply to persons with disabilities. Article 3 speaks of the equal rights of men and women. Article 26 states that all persons are entitle "…to equal protection of the law regardless of (…) sex (…) or other status."
Part II, article 2 (2) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights requires member States to "…undertake to guarantee that the rights enunciated in the present Covenant will be exercised without discrimination of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status" (emphasis added). Part II, article 3 states that the Parties undertake to "…ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social and cultural rights set forth in the present Covenant." Part III, Article 7 of the ICESCR states: "…equal remuneration for work of equal value without distinction of any kind, in particular women being guaranteed conditions of work not inferior to those enjoyed by men, with equal pay for equal work." Article 10 states that special protection should be given to mothers during childbirth.
The Preamble of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women states "…that some groups of women, such as women belonging to minority groups, indigenous women, refugee women, migrant women, women living in rural or remote communities, destitute women, women in institutions or in detention, female children, women with disabilities, elderly women and women in situations of armed conflict, are especially vulnerable to violence." (emphasis added). Article 4 provides that States should condemn violence against women. Violence against women is defined as "…any act of gender based violence that results in, or is likely to result in physical, sexual or physical harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life." (article 1).
The Beijing Declaration promotes fundamental human rights for women. Article 9 provides that the Parties are committed to: "…ensure the full implementation of the human rights of women and of the girl child as an alienable, integral and indivisible part of all human rights and fundamental freedoms." Article 13 speaks of the full participation of women in all spheres of society. Article 14 provides that women's rights are human rights. Article 17 is of significant importance in that it recognises a woman's right to control all aspects of her health. Article 26 addresses the problem of women and poverty. It states that the Parties are determined to "…eradicate the persistent and increasing burden of poverty on women…". Article 29 focuses on preventing and eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls. Article 32 provides that Parties commit to "…intensifying efforts to ensure equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all women and girls who face multiple barriers to their empowerment and advancement because of factors such as (… ) disability." (emphasis added).
Article 2 of the Beijing Platform for Action states that: "…the human rights of women and of the girl child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal rights (…) the Platform seeks to promote and protect the full enjoyment of all human rights and the fundamental freedoms of all women throughout their life cycle." Chapter IV, article 46 recognises that women "…face barriers to full equality and advancement because of factors such as their (…) disability." (emphasis added).
Paragraph 5 of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action states that human rights are universal, indivisible and independent. Paragraph 18 provides for the elimination of gender-based violence and all forms of sexual harassment and exploitation. In addition, it calls for the eradication of all forms of discrimination on grounds of sex.
In The Copenhagen Declaration and Programme of Action, pursuant to Commitment 5, States Parties commit themselves to achieving equality and equity between men and women. At the national level, States will "…promote changes in attitudes, structures, policies, laws and practices in order to eliminate all obstacles to human dignity, equality and equity in the family and in society, and promote full and equal participation of urban and rural women and women with disabilities in social, economic, and political life, including in the formulation, implementation and follow-up of public policies and programmes…" (emphasis added). Commitment 6 provides that States Parties commit themselves to ensure full and equal access to education for girls and women in order to obtain social equality.
Regional human rights conventions have been applied less often to issues regarding women's rights. However, there are certain advantages available at the regional level, which can not be attained at the international level, such as geographical proximity, cultural similarity and economic interdependence. Regional systems may have certain organs in place to deal with women's rights, such as the Council of Europe's Steering Committee for Equality between Women and Men and the Organisation of American States' Commission on Women.
Article 1 of the American Convention on Human Rights and article 3 of the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Protocol of San Salvador) provide that the parties to the Convention undertake to ensure the rights in these conventions, "without any discrimination for reasons of (…) sex…" (emphasis added). Article 17 of the American Convention on Human Rights deals with the rights of the family and states that the "…right of men and women of marriageable age to raise a family shall be recognised." and that "…no marriage shall be entered into without the free and full consent of the intending spouses."
Article 6 of the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Field of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights provides that States Parties are to "undertake to implement and strengthen programs that help to ensure suitable family care, so that women may enjoy a real opportunity to exercise the right to work". Article 9 provides for maternity leave. Article 15 (3) (a) provides that States Parties should provide special care and assistance to mothers during a reasonable period before and after childbirth.
The European Social Charter obliges States Parties in article 4 to recognise equal remuneration for women and men for equal work. Article 8 deals with the right of employed women to protection. Article 17 provides that State Parties are to take measures for the social and economic protection of mothers.
Article 1 of the Additional Protocol to the European Social Charter prohibits discrimination in employment matters on the grounds of sex.
Article 18 (3) of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights contains an anti-discrimination clause with regard to women. It provides: "…the State shall ensure the elimination of every discrimination against women and also ensure the protection of the rights of the woman and the child as stipulated in international declarations and conventions."