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 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
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
womens concerns could be expressed at the intergovernmental level. However, the
Commission had never dealt with the question of women with disabilities.
In 1987, Disabled Peoples International established its "Womens
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
womens 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
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
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,
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 Peoples International came
to the final meeting to promote support for keeping the wording in the document when
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 womens 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
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
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
5 "The United Nations and Disabled Persons; the first fifty years" [http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/dis50y00.htm] 28 August
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
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 "
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].