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Theme: Women with Disabilities

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Women with Disabilities:
Lessons of Reinforcing the Gender Perspective
in International Norms and Standards
Part 1 of 3

Getting Women with Disabilities on the Development Agenda of the United Nations

Women with Disabilities IconWomen with disabilities did not get on United Nations development agenda overnight. The first World Conference on Women, held in Mexico City in 1975, did not mention women with disabilities at all.1 The second World Conference on Women, held in Copenhagen in1980, only asked Governments to "Direct special attention to the needs of elderly women, women living alone and disabled women."2 There was little detail in the text agreed by the Governments and persons with disabilities were not well represented.

One of the major achievements for the disability community, following the 1981 observance of the International Year of Disabled Persons, was the founding of Disabled People's International (http://www.dpi.org). DPI is an international non-governmental cross-disability coalition of organizations of persons with disabilities. Women with disabilities now had an international non-governmental organizational mechanism by which they could seek to influence the development agenda of the United Nations to be more disability responsive and gender sensitive.

During the third World Conference on Women, held in Nairobi in 1985, women activists with disabilities made a special effort to be present. Even though the location of the parallel NGO Forum was not very accessible and many governmental delegates were more concerned with political issues, activists like Ruth Begun from DPI in the United States were able to convince Governments to include two paragraphs on women with disabilities in the section of the "Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women" on "groups requiring special concern". Women with "physical and mental disabilities" were among the 13 special groups of women listed in the "Strategies", and taken together they were considered to be "vulnerable".3

DPI women decided to use the opportunity of this text to bring the case of women with disabilities to the United Nations. The main focus of their efforts would be the Commission on the Status of Women, a subsidiary body of the United Nations Economic and Social Council. The Commission had for almost fifty years been the place where women’s concerns could be expressed at the intergovernmental level. However, the Commission had never dealt with the question of women with disabilities.

In 1987, Disabled People’s International established its "Women’s Committee"; Anneli Jonecken of Sweden was its chairperson. Beginning in 1988 the Women's Committee of DPI began introducing language on women with disabilities both in expert meetings organized by the Division for the Advancement of Women of the United Nations Secretariat and at annual sessions of the Commission on the Status of Women. Oral and written statements were introduced during the debate by DPI representatives, all related to women with disabilities.

The issue of vulnerable women, referring to the 13 special groups of women identified in the "Forward-looking strategies" was included in the long-term work program of the Commission for 1991. This meant that the theme would be developed substantively during 1990. The Division for the Advancement of Women, which prepared background papers for the Commission, had decided to deal with each of five groups of "women with special concerns" identified in the "Strategies" individually. One of these groups was "women with disabilities".

United Nations Seminar on Women with Disabilities

During the 1990 session of the Commission, agreement was reached between DPI and the Division for the Advancement of Women to organize jointly a "Seminar on disabled women" from 20-24 August 1990 at Vienna. This was the first time that the United Nations had organized a technical meeting on women with disabilities. Both DPI and the Division prepared for it carefully. After an open discussion and strong debates, the meeting adopted more than seventy recommendations. DPI worked with the Division to present these in their periodic publication Women 2000.4 A women’s point of view on disability now was on the table.

Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities

The rights of persons with disabilities has been the subject of much attention in the United Nations.5 One outcome of the International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981 was the adoption of the World Plan of Action concerning Disabled Persons6 by General Assembly resolution 37/52 of 3 December 1982. The World Programme emphasized the rights of persons with disabilities to equal opportunities as does society as a whole, to improvements in their living conditions on the basis of full and effective participation and to accountability in policies and programmes that affect their well being and livelihoods. The Programme did not however distinguish between women and men with disabilities. Since most of the delegates who reviewed and discussed drafts of Programme were men, the document reflected a male point of view.

In 1987, at the midpoint of the United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons (1983-1992) a Global Meeting of Expert was organized in Stockholm to review progress and obstacles in implementing the World Programme. The Meeting recommended that the General Assembly should convene a special conference to draft an international convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against persons with disabilities to be ratified by States by the end of the Decade.7 Again, there was no reference in the recommendations submitted to gender-sensitive issues.

A draft outline of such a "Convention" was prepared by Italy for consideration at the forty-second session of the General Assembly (1987), and Sweden prepared a draft of a "Convention" for consideration at the forty-fourth session of the Assembly (1989). In neither session could consensus be reached on a course of action. The reason was that, in the opinion of many representatives, other existing human rights documents seemed to guarantee persons with disabilities the same rights as all other persons.

The United Nations Economic and Social Council, at its first regular session in 1990, agreed to elaborate "Standard rules on equalization of opportunities of persons with disabilities" as an alternative to drafting of a "Convention". Governmental experts would elaborate the "Standard Rules" in close collaboration with organizations of the United Nations system, intergovernmental bodies and non-governmental organizations, especially organizations of persons with disabilities.

The "Standard Rules" were developed through a series of expert consultations and workshops over the period 1991-1993. At its forty-eight session (1993) the General Assembly adopted the "Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities" by resolution 48/96, annex of 20 December 1993.8

Drafting of the "Rules" proceeded independently from what was happening concerning the advancement of women. However, because of the Seminar on women with disabilities, the Commission on the Status of Women in 1991 requested that the issue of women with disabilities be considered in the drafting of the "Standard Rules". While this had no binding effect, it did alert delegations to the importance of the issue.

Again, most of the delegates concerned with drafting the "Rules" were men, who did not see the need to include a gender dimension in the text of the "Standard Rules".9

The "Standard Rules" are intended to be a tool for policy-making and action for persons with disabilities and their organizations. The purpose of the "Rules" is to ensure that girls, boys, women and men with disabilities will have the same rights and obligations as others. Since there are still obstacles that prevent persons with disabilities to participate fully in the activities of their societies, the "Rules" call upon States to be responsible for removing these obstacles. Persons with disabilities and their organizations should play an active role in this process, with special attention directed towards groups such as women, children, and older persons, among others.

Chapter II of the "Rules", Target Areas for Equal Participation is the only place in which the "Rules" are especially gender-sensitive. This was because a DPI representative participated in the open-ended working group that agreed on the draft text of the "Rules". She was the only woman with disabilities and probably the only woman in the room. However, colleagues from Disabled People’s International came to the final meeting to promote support for keeping the wording in the document when adopted.

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

The main human rights document for women is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.10 It was adopted by the General Assembly in December1979 and came into force on 3 September 1981. The Convention specifies both women’s human rights and policies necessary to enjoy them. States Parties that have ratified, acceded or succeeded to the Convention are legally bound by its provisions. A special treaty body, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, checks whether States Parties are complying with the Convention.

The Convention initially had no mention of women with disabilities. Interpretation of the Convention is done by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Thus, DPI representatives realized that if Committee could be convinced to make a General Recommendation on women with disabilities, it would have the effect of bringing disability concerns into the Convention.

DPI representatives worked during Committee sessions in 1989 and 1991. By talking with Committee Members, especially by showing them recommendations from the Seminar on women with disabilities and by formulating language that the DPI representatives worked out with interested Committee Members, the Committee was convinced to adopt General Recommendation No. 18 (tenth session, 1991) on "Disabled Women".12 This meant that every State Party to the Convention had to report on the status of women with disabilities in their countries. Some countries have already done so in their periodic reports.

Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action

When the time came to begin work on the final document of the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, DPI had two sets of text to show to delegates: the report of the Seminar on women with disabilities and the "Standard Rules". DPI representatives were of the view that some of the "Standard Rules" text could be used at Beijing if the gender dimension were strengthened. However, DPI soon realized that it would have to go far beyond the "Standard Rules" if it were to have the concerns of women with disabilities appropriately reflected in the Beijing "Platform for Action".

If the recommendations of the Seminar on women with disabilities are compared with the text of the "Platform", it is evident that much has been reflected. By constant lobbying in every preparatory committee meeting and encouraging DPI members to attend Beijing or to be part of national delegations, DPI began to see its text on women with disabilities gradually incorporated into the draft Platform.

By the time the Platform for Action was negotiated, it was clear that delegates expected to add text on women with disabilities to certain parts of the document, based on what had been the gender-sensitive analysis of women with disabilities done in 1990.


1 Report of the World Conference of the International Women's Year, Mexico City, 19 June-2 July 1975, United Nations Publication, Sales No. E.76.IV.1.

2 Report of the United Nations Conference on the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace, Copenhagen, 14-30 July 1980, United Nations Publication, Sales No. E.80.IV.3, para.160.

3 Report of the World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace, Nairobi, 15-26 July 1985, United Nation Publication, Sales No. E.85.IV.10, para 296.

4 Women 2000, no.1, 1991. A summary of Seminar findings and recommendations is presented in a document submitted to the thirty-fifth session of the Commission on the Status of Women (Vienna, 27 February - 1 March 1991), "Priority Themes; Equality: Vulnerable Women, including Migrant Women, report of the Secretary-General (E/CN.6/1991/2)".

5 "The United Nations and Disabled Persons; the first fifty years" [http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/dis50y00.htm] 28 August 1999.

6 United Nations document A/37/351/Add.1 and Corr.1, annex, sect. VIII, recommendation 1 (iv), available at http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/diswpa00.htm.

7 Report of the Global Meeting of Experts to Review the Implementation of the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons at the Mid-Point of the United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons (Stockholm, 17-22 August 1987); see also United Nations document A/42/561.

8 General Assembly resolution 48/96 is available on the Internet in English, French and Spanish at http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/dissre00.htm.

9 Economic and Social Council resolution 1991/21 "[took] note of the Seminar on Disabled Women, held in Vienna from 20-24 August 1990 (para 1)" and "[requested] the ad hoc open-ended working group to elaborate standard rules on the equalization of opportunities for disabled persons to pay attention to the particular needs of disabled women (para 5)".

10 The Special Rapporteur on Disability of the Commission for Social Development, Mr. Bengt Lindqvist (Sweden) has noted in his monitoring report on the implementation of the Standard Rules, for the period 1994 to 1997, that "… the gender perspective [is] vague in the text of the Rules … the gender perspective should receive more attention in future implementation efforts" in "Monitoring the implementation of the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities; note by the Secretary-General (A/52/56, para 152)" [http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/dismsre0.htm].

11 http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/content.htm

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United Nations, 2003-04
Department of Economic and Social Affairs
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