The intersection of disability and gender: land of the left behind?

A group of strong, determined women, living with disabilities in Vanuatu, stand up for their rights.
Kirsty Smith.
Author:Kirsty Smith
Posted on: Thursday, 8th March, 2018

Today, 8th March, is International Women’s Day, an opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements in all spheres of life and celebrate the huge progress that has been made towards gender equality. But we also need to highlight the considerable work to be done before all women can enjoy their rights and fulfil their potential. One group of women and girls in particular have seen little improvement in quality of life and access to opportunity: women and girls with disabilities.  

The experience of women and girls with disabilities  differs to that of men with disabilities, and to women and girls without disabilities, for example in their access to services and how they are perceived and treated by others. The  cross over, or ‘intersection’, of disability and gender has received increasing attention in recent years. For example, it was great to see the several references to women and girls with disabilities in the Department for International Development’s updated Strategic Vision for Gender Equality, launched yesterday.

This difference is overwhelmingly one of comparative disadvantage; yet we must take care in our analysis of this ‘double discrimination’, or multiple exclusion not to make generalisations that present disabled women and girls as victims without power or agency. Women and girls with disability can and do make a huge contribution to their families, communities and society as a whole, as highlighted in this recent CBM film from Vanuatu. What we do need to analyse is how power is distributed, maintained and used, in relation to the constructs of gender and disability. 

Higher incidence of disability

An estimated 19 per cent of women across the world have a disability, compared to 12 per cent of men[i] and in the parts of the world where CBM works, women constitute three quarters of the people with disabilities.[ii] This is often attributed to women’s longer life expectancy, and increasing chances of disability later in life. However, further analysis reveals this difference is also a result of social and cultural norms relating to gender .

For example, Trachoma is a blinding disease that affects more women than men, with women 1.8 times more likely to contract the trachoma infection because, as traditionally the main care-givers, they are at greater risk of contracting from children, who are ‘reservoirs’ of the infection.[iii] Whilst the greatest causes of disease, and disability, amongst women are Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), this is sidelined as a major health concern for women because research focuses mainly on men with the assumption that occurrence, outcomes and preventative measures are the same for men and women.

In the case of obstetric fistula, a disabling injury unique to women and girls, a number of gendered social factors contribute to its prevalence in low-income countries, such as lack of emergency obstetric care, early child marriage associated with early pregnancy, FGM and the limited decision-making power that women have, including over pregnancy and childbirth.[iv]   

Throughout their life course, women and girls find themselves excluded from all aspects of social, economic and political spheres. In low-income countries, 45.6% of males and 32.9% of females with disability have completed primary school education, compared with 55.6% of males and 42.0% of females without disability. This gap continues into working life, with employment rates of 58.6% for men and 20.1% for women with disability, compared with 71.2% and 31.5% for non-disabled women. Unsurprisingly, women with disabilities tend to earn less than men with disabilities, all of which has an impact on disabled women’s risk of poverty. [v] 

Women's rights, disability rights, human rights

Women and girls with disabilities see their human rights more commonly denied and violated than others. They are more exposed to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment and more susceptible to violence and abuse than men and boys with disabilities, or women and men without disabilities.[vi] In some parts of the world, such as Mexico City, involuntary sterilization or forced abortion is still used to restrict the fertility of disabled people – almost always women and girls - particularly those with an intellectual disability.[vii]

The convergence of discriminations against disabled people and women and girls is based on the very body itself. Rosemarie Garland–Thomson suggests that: ‘Many parallels exist between the social meanings attributed to female bodies and those assigned to disabled bodies. Both are cast as deviant and inferior; both are excluded from full participation in public as well as economic life; both are defined in opposition to a norm that is assumed to possess natural physical superiority’.[viii]

This discrimination is reinforced and perpetuated by systems that simply don’t work for women and girls with disabilities. Challenging power relationship and changing the social, political and economic structures that reinforce discrimination against and exclusion of women and girls, and people with disabilities, is key to preventing the intersection of disability and gender remaining the territory of the most left behind.

Promoting inclusion of women and girls with disability

CBM is committed to building a world where all women and girls with disability can access their rights and fulfil their potential, whether through ensuring they are included in our programmes to prevent avoidable blindness inclusive or improve livelihood opportunities, for example, or through focussed initiatives like our project to tackle violence against women and girls with disabilities in Nigeria.

We’re also committed to shaping national and international policy to ensure that women and girls are included in aid and development programmes. There are a number of ways in which the UK Government can tackle multiple discrimination and exclusion experienced by women and girls.  We would encourage the Government to apply a power analysis to all of its work that addresses disability and gender, and welcome this approach in DFID’s updated Strategic Vision for Gender Equality. The Government could also strengthen its approach to disability in a number of gender-focussed policies, including Women, Peace and Security; and similarly its approach to gender in disability-focussed policies, such as the Disability Framework, due to be updated this year.

The Government can also leverage greater inclusion of women and girls with disability through bilateral aid provision, as well as through its own international advocacy and negotiations, such as at the upcoming Commission on the Status of Women. Additionally, as the Government aims to deliver a greater percentage of official development assistance through departments other than DFID, it is important that these departments receive sensitisation and training on disability inclusion and gender equality. And, of course, there is still much to be done globally to strengthen evidence and data collection disaggregated by disability and gender, matched with concrete action.

CBM UK will be launching an advocacy paper on disability and gender with detailed analysis and full recommendations for action at the end of March, to coincide with the conclusion of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. 


[i] World Report on Disability. World Health Organisation and The World Bank, 2011.
[ii]   Making the SDGs count for women and girls with disabilities. UN Women, 2017.
[iii] Women and Trachoma: Achieving Gender Equity in the Implementation of SAFE. The Carter Centre, 2009
[iv] B.K. Gulati, S. Unisa, A. Pandey, D. Sahu, and S. Ganguly, Correlates of Occurrence of Obstetric Fistula among Women in Selected States of India: An Analysis of DLHS1-3 Data. Facts, Views & Vision Issues In OBGYN, 2011, 3 (2): 121-128  
[v] World Report on Disability
[vi] CBM submission on women and girls with disabilities to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as requested by CRPD/C/8/3.
[vii] Human Rights Watch Word Report 2018 (Events of 2017)
[viii] Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Re-shaping, Re-thinking, Re-defining: Feminist Disability Studies.  Center for Women Policy Studies, 2001,Rosemarie,RedefiningFeministDisabilitiesStudiesCWPR2001.pdf


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