One section of the female population that goes unnoticed and is plunged into oblivion is women and girls with disabilities. Whether it is in the mainstream media or the official discourses and narratives, the issue of women and girls with disabilities is conspicuously absent despite the fact that their number is growing due to the ageing of the population and prevalence of female related health problems. In this connection, according to a World Bank Report , ‘every minute more than 30 women are seriously injured or disabled during labour’.
This is glaringly evident in an analysis of the
last Population Census. It is noted that at the time when the Census was carried out women and girls with disabilities numbered 30,881 as opposed to 28,987 males. At international level, according to UN Women, the prevalence rate in the female population is 19.2 % as opposed to 12% for males. The feminization of disability as a demographic and social reality is unwittingly ignored to the detriment of sound policy planning and social engineering.
It is because of the glaring absence of a gender-based approach on disability that the UN came up with a specific article on women with disabilities in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,
Article 6. In fact, when the Convention was being elaborated, there were conflicting opinions on the necessity of such an article. One school of thought averred that all women were already covered under existing human rights treaties, especially CEDAW. But another school was of the opinion that in view of the specificity and special needs of women with disabilities, there was a need for a separate article targeting this category of the female population. It is worth pointing out that in the preparatory meetings leading to the elaboration of UNCRPD , Mrs Sheila Bappoo, as the then Minister of Social Security, advocated strongly for the inclusion of a separate article on women with disabilities.
There is no doubt that women and girls with disabilities suffer from double discrimination : one on the basis of gender and the other on the basis of disability. In Sociology, this is called double jeopardy. This inevitably gives rise to compounded inequality and unequal access to facilities, services and opportunities. The end result is decreased life chances and lack of a level playing field with regards to not only non-disabled women but also vis-à-vis their male counterparts. The figures of the last Population Census clearly demonstrate huge disparities. For example, there were only 170 female graduates with disabilities as compared to 371 male graduates with disabilities. Almost three times the number of female Mauritians with disabilities had not attended any school as compared to male
Mauritians with disabilities [source : Statistics Mauritius]. At international level, according to a UNDP study, the rate of literacy for women and girls with disabilities is as low as one per cent.
With regards to employment, only 2542 of women with disabilities were gainfully employed at the time of the Census as compared to 5893 males with disabilities.
Abuse and Violence
In view of their increased vulnerabilities and limited interactions with the larger society, women and girls with disabilities are at a greater risk of violence, abuse and exploitation. Familial and partner violence is a recurring feature. Unfortunately, when it comes to sentencing of perpetrators, the law
in Mauritius does not provide for aggravating circumstances in cases where the victims are persons with disabilities. This becomes more serious when women and girls with mental impairment are duped and seduced and end up with unwanted pregnancies. Cases of rape are often dismissed due to poor memory of the victims and inability to give evidence in a coherent way.
One topic that is often swept under the carpet and is not evoked openly is the deprivation of inheritance rights. As many women with disabilities are unmarried, the feeling is that as they are dependent on others for their welfare, their share of inheritance should be divided, by fair or foul means, with other family members. Their dependency and vulnerability are thus
Sexual and Reproductive Rights
Like all human beings, persons with disabilities are entitled to sexual, reproductive and maternity/paternity rights. However, in the thought processes of many people, persons with disabilities are generally viewed as ‘asexual’ as if they are devoid of the natural desires that characterize humanity in general. This problem is exacerbated for women with disabilities as they face greater social restrictions, overprotection, inhibiting taboos and attitudinal barriers. If they happen to overcome these societal hurdles and aspire to a married life, daunting obstacles stand on their way. For example, many churches and places of worship are
inaccessible to brides and bridegrooms on wheelchair. A deaf couple is unable to understand the explanations of the Civil status officer on the technicalities of different matrimonial regimes as the law does not provide for the use of a sign language interpreter.
On the other hand, no targeted campaigns are carried out for women with disabilities on safe sex, HIV Aids and STDs. No booklets or information sheets are available on these subjects in braille or sign language.
Sociologically speaking, this is how the political becomes personal and the personal becomes political. That is how a society functions impacts heavily on the personal lives of individuals.
According to UN Women, in times of crisis like the Covid pandemic, the loss of community support and protection mechanisms exacerbates the precarity of women and girls with disabilities. Their sense of isolation is heightened due to confinement measures. They may be deprived of services of carers or accompanying guides in the case of blind women while those living in institutions have to cope without the visits of near and dear ones. On the other hand, access to first hand information on the pandemic is not available to deaf persons in Mauritius. Unlike in other countries, the National Communication Committee (COVID-19) does not provide for sign language interpretation.
Ageing and Disability
The population is ageing and one of the inescapable consequences is that older people tend to acquire disabilities of different types. As women have a higher life expectancy than men, it is not a surprise that women with disabilities outnumber disabled men in old age.
It is therefore important to adopt an intersectional approach when addressing the issue of gender equality and rights of women in general.