New York — Governments meeting at the United Nations about the needs of women and children with disabilities should develop a clear plan of action to promote and uphold their rights, Human Rights Watch said today. Among others steps, they should make a commitment to address the needs of women and children with disabilities through international development programs.
The challenges facing women and children with disabilities are the focus of the annual Conference of States Parties for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, scheduled for September 12 to 14, 2012. The convention requires specific protections from discrimination for women and children with disabilities, reflecting their vulnerability to abuses. Human Rights Watch's research on women and children with disabilities is summarized in a brochure released on September 11.
"Women and children with disabilities are vulnerable to human rights abuses not only because of disability but also because of their age or gender," said Amanda McRae, disability rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Governments at this year's conference should show that they are not only serious about the rights of women and children with disabilities on paper, but that they intend to put those protections into practice."
As part of the conference, Human Rights Watch is organizing expert panels on violence against children with disabilities as well as mental health practices and the rights of people with psychosocial disabilities (mental health problems). Speakers include representatives from Human Rights Watch, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization.
Human Rights Watch research underscores the abuses women and children with disabilities face:
- Sexual and gender-based violence: Women and girls with disabilities face a heightened risk of physical and sexual violence because of limitations in physical mobility, communication barriers, and isolation. In northern Uganda, for example, Human Rights Watch documented sexual violence against women with disabilities and found that more than one-third of 64 women with disabilities interviewed had experienced sexual or gender-based violence, often at the hands of relatives.
- Discrimination in health and reproductive rights: Many woman and girls with disabilities are at risk of being forcibly sterilized. In countries ranging from France to India, the sterilizations are carried out at the request of legal guardians, who have the legal authority to make life-altering decisions for people with disabilities, or due to pressure from doctors because of state population control policies. Forced sterilization is irreversible and can have profound physical and psychological consequences. Because of communication barriers, women with disabilities often are not able to report what has happened to them, increasing their vulnerability.
- Barriers to education:UNESCO estimates that children with disabilities constitute more than one-third of the 67 million children who are out of school worldwide. If children with disabilities are permitted to attend school, it is often in segregated schools or classrooms. In Nepal, Human Rights Watch found that despite a national policy to include children with disabilities in mainstream education, a system of segregated schools combined with inaccessible buildings and lack of awareness among parents meant that many children with disabilities did not attend school or received an inferior education.
- Violence against children with disabilities in schools: In many parts of the world, children with disabilities are subjected to violence in schools, through discipline from teachers or bullying by classmates. In a survey of corporal punishment in the United States, Human Rights Watch found that in many jurisdictions teachers are more likely to use corporal punishment, such as paddling or hitting, on children with disabilities than on their non-disabled peers.
- Institutionalization of children with disabilities and abuse in institutions: Children with disabilities frequently face abuses in psychiatric institutions, orphanages, and other social care facilities. In Ghana, for example, Human Rights Watch observed children with disabilities as young as age 9 forced to live in unsanitary conditions in psychiatric hospitals. In spiritual healing centers known as prayer camps, children as young as 10 were chained to trees outside for weeks or months at a time and forced to fast.
In addition to the rights of women and children with disabilities, the conference will address the failure of major international development programs to address the needs of people with disabilities. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the largest global effort to eradicate poverty, makes no mention of people with disabilities.
"There are 1 billion people with disabilities worldwide, and most of them live in poverty," McRae said. "Countries and development organizations need to ensure that the needs of people with disabilities are at the forefront of their planning."
Since the Disabilities Rights Convention went into effect in 2007, 119 countries have ratified it. The convention includes provisions on the right to be free from discrimination and the rights to live in the community and make one's own decisions, as well as to access justice, education, and employment, among others. All remaining countries should ratify the treaty and its Optional Protocol, which provides for a mechanism for people to submit complaints of treaty violations, Human Rights Watch said.