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UN Programme on Disability   Working for full participation and equality
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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 3 of 3

The Situation of Women with Disabilities: taking a snapshot

Women with Disabilities Icon When the member States of the United Nations adopted the "Platform for Action", they committed themselves to implement it and urged organizations of the United Nations System, all women and men, as well as non-governmental organizations, and all sectors of civil society to commit themselves fully and contribute to its implementation.

Some tough questions to ask

About actions by Governments:

  • Has your Government taken action with respect to the eradication of poverty among disabled girls and women?
  • Is there a plan of action to ensure access to quality education and training for disabled girls and women?
  • What are the activities of your Government to promote and disseminate research and information with reference to the health of women with disabilities?
  • What actions are being taken to prevent violence against disabled women and girls?
  • What legislative actions are being planned to eradicate inequalities in economic structures and policies affecting disabled girls and women?
  • Is there any legislative action to promote employment for women with disabilities?
  • What is your Government doing to promote equal access for the full participation of women with disabilities in power structures and decision-making?
  • What are the actions to promote respect for the protection of the human rights of disabled girls and women?
  • How does your Government ensure access to community resources for disabled girls and women?

About actions by the non-governmental community:

  • Has your organization used the Platform for Action to lobby the Government in any way?
  • Has your organization networked with any women’s organizations to help promote the inclusion of disabled girls and women in post-Beijing Conference lobbying efforts?
  • Has your organization developed any public information programs or training opportunities to promote follow-up to the Beijing Platform for Action?

The first step in implementation is to see where we are: to take a snapshot of the present situation of women with disabilities. This means asking some tough questions. As part of its follow-up to the Beijing Conference, Disabled People’s International has formulated some questions that it has circulated to its members. The questions provide a practical guide for each country and community to ask how the Platform for Action is being implemented.

Making the Platform Happen

The Platform for Action was named to show that it is a political document. It is a statement of principles and policy objectives that women can use to change the world. However, the Platform will remain just words unless concerned people put pressure on Governments to turn its recommendations into actual deeds. Every woman with a disability has a stake in the Platform and a responsibility to act in her own interest and in the interest of the community in which she lives to convert it into concrete laws, policies and programs.

The experience of the women who worked to put disability into the Platform provides a model for every woman with a disability. Many national organizations of women with disabilities are already developing strategies to make the Platform happen. There are a number of steps common to such efforts, which are discussed in the follow paragraphs

Step One: Get the facts concerning the situation of women with disabilities

The first step towards translating an international instrument, such as the Beijing Platform for Action, into practical action is to obtain information about (1) the situation of women with disabilities, (2) relevant policies that address this issue and which can be used to promote follow-up efforts, and (3) evidence of changes that have occurred since adoption of the Platform - or related international instruments.

Women with disabilities are in the Platform for Action because it was recognized that they experience things differently. The proof that the Platform is being implemented will be found in whether their situation changes for the better. The Platform says that within five years things should change. The Platform was intended to be measurable and the questions asked in the earlier section can be answered with numbers.

Some changes are easier to measure than are others. For instance, it is easy to determine whether access to education by girls with disability is the same as for other girls (and for boys): enrolment statistics can show that.

Other changes can be harder to measure, but information can be found. Surveys showing where women with disabilities live and the existence of independent living programs can indicate, for example, if women with disabilities are able to live independently and in dignity.

Governments are supposed to collect and analyze this information, but the reality is that many do not. Women with disabilities themselves may have to provide Governments with information, simply because the women care more about the issue.

The idea is to be able to say: in 1995 (or whatever year before Beijing for which you have data), women were at "point A". Now a year - or several years later - they are at "point B", compared with a goal of "point C". If they are still at "point A", that is grounds for crying "shame".

Going to the press with the results of this information can be a powerful tool for advocacy. No Government wants to be in a situation in which it can be accused of not making progress in accordance with internationally agreed policies and priorities.

Lobby your Government

Governments have to be reminded of their commitments and encouraged to take action. Trying to influence Governments by contacting them directly is called lobbying.

The art of lobbying involves assembling information, which can include information about what women with disabilities in a given country feel, and making it available to people who make laws, develop policies or design and manage programs. There are a number of places where the information can be effective.

National Governments agreed to the Platform. They have made a commitment and would like to show that they are living up to that commitment, both for themselves and to show to other countries. There is a competition among countries to show progress; and taking advantage of this is an important technique for effective lobbying of issues.

For this reason, if information shows that a commitment is not being met, most Governments will do things to improve the situation rapidly, by changing laws, changing expenditure policies, by undertaking public information campaigns.

Where can one start a lobbying effort?

Obviously it is important to contact interested members of national or provincial parliaments or similar legislative and deliberative bodies. They make laws and influence their implementation. When members are in the majority they want to show that they are doing well, when they are in the minority they want to show that they could do better.

Another place to lobby is the national machinery or similar coordinating body for the advancement of women as well the national disability committee. Almost every country has established a national body or organizations that is concerned with implementation of the Platform for Action. Sometimes it is a commission; sometimes it is an office in a ministry, sometimes an academic institute, and sometimes just a non-profit office. These entities need to be contacted and information provided related to women with disabilities.

According to the Platform for Action, Governments were supposed to prepare and present implementation plans by the end of 1996.

    • If your Government made a plan, you should obtain a copy and make sure that it contains plans to address issues related to women with disabilities.
    • If your Government did not make a plan, you should let them know that you are concerned and pressure the concerned officials to draft a plan, even if it is late, and see that the plan addresses disability issues.

Use international human rights instruments

Another way of influencing Governments is to see whether national policies and programs are in compliance with relevant international human rights treaties, especially the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Most Governments are party to (that is, they have ratified, acceded or succeeded to) the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. That means that they have taken a legal (as well as a moral) obligation to implement all of the Convention’s provisions. The General Assembly has asked that the monitoring of the Convention take into account the Platform for Action. That means that the Platform can be used to help interpret obligations of States Parties under the Convention.

Countries are supposed to report every four years on implementation of the Convention to a monitoring body, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. This Committee is made up of 23 elected experts. Their job is to ask hard questions about what States Parties have done. In their General Recommendation 18, the Committee asked all Governments to report on the status of women with disabilities when they present their periodic reports to the Committee.

If your country is going to report in the next few years (and every State Party should have submitted at least one report between 1995 and 2000), you should contact the office preparing the report and make your information available. Usually, the national machinery on advancement of women or similar coordinating body does drafting the periodic report.

If your information is ignored, you can make it available directly to members of the Committee. This will help the Committee to raise tough, realistic questions when they review your country’s report. The address of members of the Committee can be obtained from Secretary, Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Division for the Advancement of Women, United Nations, Two United Nations Plaza, New York NY 10017 (USA).

Lobby Governments around the World

Much of what is in the Platform is the result of lobbying of Governments by international non-governmental organizations. They provided ideas for text, showed that issues were important to many women and, through the Forum '95 at Beijing, dramatized the significance of the Fourth World Conference on Women.

Members of the international non-governmental community are now involved in making sure that the Platform is implemented. Representatives of these organizations can be your voice in international forums, if they are given the information. There are a number of international non-governmental organizations concerned with disability. However, Disabled People's International is the one organization that is comprised of persons with disabilities covering all types of disabilities. DPI has a history of working with the United Nations in the areas of advancement of women and people with disabilities.

How can your organization lobby successfully?

Before you attend any meeting, you should obtain copies of the documents (which are now easy to find on the Internet), read them and study them to see where you can most effectively introduce your issues to the debate.

Your organization can prepare a formal statement on the issue and prepare draft text that contains language you would like to see included in the final document of the meeting. You must find out ahead of time if non-governmental organizations are allowed to present oral statements at the meeting. If the answer is yes, you should try to get on the speaker's list two weeks prior to the meeting.

How do you get on the speaker’s list? You call the Secretary of the meeting at the United Nations - or the concerned meeting organizing body - and give the name of your organization, your name and the agenda item on which you wish to make a statement. Making an oral statement is the way delegates that will be able to identify you.

Another technique is to have written text to distribute to interested delegations.

How do you know which delegations to lobby?

From the first day of a meeting, it is important to listen to the debate and take note of delegations that mention disability, make a list of the countries at the end of the meeting and start contacting interested delegations. You can approach delegates during the meeting, at tea or lunch or in the hallways and give them a copy of the language that you would like to see added to the final meeting document. Sometimes this works easily; other times you have to keep working on the issue until you see that the issue gains recognition, support and is included in the final document.

When you lobby a resolution, approach the meeting Secretariat and find out what are the resolutions that are going to be tabled during the session you are attending. You can also approach your own country’s delegation or the sponsor of a draft resolution being tabled. It is important to get a copy of the first draft of a resolution so you have the opportunity to go through it and have a chance to suggest improved language. You will not succeed all the time in efforts to add disability-sensitive language to a draft resolution. If you do not succeed, it is better to work closely with a delegation that is interested in the issue and look for future opportunities to advance the issue.

How do you meet the delegates?

One approach is to ask if your country’s delegates will you support on your issue. Sometimes through them you can meet other delegates. When you are listening to debates, try to locate where each country is sitting and recognize the faces of the delegates (or train your assistant to do this job). Whenever you have the opportunity, say "hello", and lobby your issue. You also can invite delegates for tea or lunch. You usually will not deal with the head of a delegation, but you never know. Sometimes you are lucky: this happens and lobbying becomes easier.

How do you meet members of the United Nations Secretariat and other intergovernmental organizations?

The easiest way is to just make an appointment to meet with the Secretariat staff with whom you wish to discuss issues related to women with disabilities. Part of the job of the international civil service is to meet with representatives of non-governmental organizations and civil society. You can get a brief from them on items in your area of interest. Sometimes you can ask them for copies of meeting documents or publications. You should try to meet with them at their convenience, often before the meeting. During meetings Secretariat staff are very busy.

How do you get documents for meetings?

Nowadays, it is can be difficult to get copies of documents during the meeting, because financial cutbacks have resulted in reductions in the number of copies reproduced. The best suggestion is to use the Internet to get documents before a meeting. This will give you a chance to prepare yourself ahead of time.

For documents that are distributed during a conference, representatives of non-governmental organizations often will not be provided copies so you must use your contacts in the Secretariat or among delegations to help you obtain copies and to photocopy the documents that you need.

It also is useful to lobby with non-governmental organizations that attend meetings and briefings on intergovernmental meetings that are organized by other non-governmental organizations. For NGO’s that come only for specific meetings, like a national-level non-governmental organization, attendance at NGO briefings is a good way in which to quickly and efficiently gain information and obtain copies of meeting documents.

It is very important to follow a meeting until its final draft report is adopted. You have to be a watchdog for your issue. Sometimes a delegation may decide at the last moment to change or delete paragraphs, so you have to be attentive until the meeting is over.

What can you do to further implementation of international instruments related to women with disabilities?

You can help make the commitments in the Platform for Action and in the Standard Rules a reality for women with disabilities, in your own communities and countries. Here are some activities to consider:

  • Study the Standard Rules and the parts of the Platform for Action that relate to disability and think about how they relate to your own life, your family and your community.
  • Try to collect regularly information about the situation of women with disabilities in your community and your country.
  • Talk about this with other women with disabilities and other women and men generally.
  • Find out about events in your country organized as follow up to the Beijing Conference and to promote interest and support for disability issues in general.
  • Contact your national machinery for the advancement of women and your national committee concerning persons with disabilities.
  • Keep informed about developments, including through periodic use of the Internet to do research on issues related to advancement of women, at http://www.un.org/womanwatch and to persons with disabilities at http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/disabled.htm. A number of non-governmental organizations have comprehensive Internet-based resources, such as the Disabled People's Association of Singapore, at http://www.dpa.org.sg as does the private sector WorldEnable site - the Internet Accessibility Initiative, at http://www.worldenable.net.
  • Prepare and review periodically the list of priority issues that you feel need to be met to promote full participation and equality of persons with disabilities.

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United Nations, 2003-04
Department of Economic and Social Affairs
Division for Social Policy and Development