June 21, 2024
Equity VoiceRethinking Social Justice through gender and disability justice

UN special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities addresses sexual reproductive health rights of women with disabilities

Around the world, young women and girls with disabilities face great restrictions to access to services and education that are essential for leading healthy lives and minimize risks of gender-based violence. Protecting their right to decide over their own bodies and sexuality is critical in the global fight to end violence, exploitation and abuse against women.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights include both being able to make decisions over sexuality and reproduction, as well as accessing facilities and services related to these. But laws in a large number of countries—including many signatories of the CRPD– allow judges, healthcare professionals, family members and guardians to decide over life-changing procedures on behalf of girls and young women with disabilities. Forced sterilization, for instance, can be decided by a judge, parent or legal guardian under pretense of protecting against sexual violence and improving the quality of life. In some cases, laws can determine persons with disabilities as “unfit to consent” to sexual relations.In the event of becoming pregnant, a woman with disabilities will likely face enormous pressure to end her pregnancy or give away her baby, particularly if she lives in an institution, because she will be presumed “unfit for parenting”, and as an explicit birth control policy aimed at curbing chances of having more children with disabilities.

The combination of factors that lead to these institutionally-sanctioned abuse and discriminatory practices is complex, and cannot be understood without looking at the widespread social myths and misconceptions around age, gender, and disability.

Stereotypes, misconceptions and abuse

One of these common misconceptions is about sexuality of persons with disabilities, seen as either something that does not exist or a problem that needs to be controlled. Young women and girls with disabilities are mostly regarded by society as either asexual or hypersexual, and social conventions on beauty have historically excluded them, reinforcing instead self-perceptions as unattractive and unworthy. These views, particularly pervasive in the case of intellectual and psychosocial disabilities, propel hard-to-break cycles of low expectations and relegation, which have profound and long-lasting effects in their lives.

In the case of adolescents, the all-too-familiar assumption that they lack the capacity to make autonomous decisions, is yet another barrier for young women with disabilities—or without disabilities, for that matter–to access information and services that are essential to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, as well as many forms of sexual violence.
But research reveals a picture very different from these common assumptions: studies show that young people with disabilities have, in fact, the same concerns and needs about sexuality, relationships and identity as their non-disabled peers. Their patterns of sexual behaviour and aspirations in regards to relationships are, also, in no way different. We must wonder then, whether current institutions and legal frameworks, which seem good at responding to the needs of caregivers, are also effective when addressing those of the women and girls with disabilities that they are meant to protect. Studies conclude that not only they are inadequate, they oftentimes exacerbate many of the risks that they are supposed to mitigate.

Changing the rationale: from prejudice-based to human rights-based.

The reasons of this failure lay in the flawed rationale under which these widespread practices are justified. Built upon misconceptions and stereotypes around the sexuality of persons with disabilities, this rationale calls for segregation and institutionalization as the best way for protection, while establishing patronizing schemes in which women and girls with disabilities become infantilized for life. The long history of this rationale has left us with institutions and guardianship schemes in which women and girls with disabilities are exposed to acute levels of violence and abuse, causing irreparable harm to countless around the world.

State actors, civil society and international organizations need to urgently address human rights violations against young women and girls with disabilities. We can break the cycle of misconceptions, abuse and violence, enabling more chances for them to live full lives. Tackling deep-rooted inequalities around gender and disability will benefit not only women and girls historically marginalized, but also society as a whole.

Recommendations of the Special Rapporteur

In this report, the Special Rapporteur makes a series of recommendations summarized below:

  1. Establish legislation to recognise sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and young women with disabilities, prohibiting harmful practices, including forced sterilization.
  2. Ensure that all sexual and reproductive health information, goods and services are accessible and age-, gender- and disability-sensitive, and provide adequate training to health workers and law enforcement officials, prosecutors and judges in charge of providing services and protecting the rights of girls and young women with disabilities;
  3. Implement awareness-raising programmes designed to change the societal perception on sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and young women with disabilities, and to end all forms of violence against them, including forced sterilization, forced abortion and forced contraception;
  4. Support families to strengthen their ability to understand and address the sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and young women with disabilities, free from stigma and stereotypes;
  5. Collect statistical data, including on harmful practices and all forms of violence disaggregated by sex, age and disability, to improve planning of policy and services;
  6. Adopt strategies to include girls and young women with disabilities in decision-making and policy development on these issues.
  7. Mobilize resources in the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals and invest in inclusive programmes that increase the access of girls and young women with disabilities to sexual and reproductive health and rights; and
  8. Mainstream advancing the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young women and girls with disabilities across UN agencies and programs.
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