Written by Ingeborg Odink and Rosamund Shreeves,
According to the UN, an estimated one in five women worldwide live with disabilities and the prevalence of disability is actually higher among women than men (19.2 versus 12 %). Women and girls with disabilities are also among the most vulnerable and marginalised, because of the multiple and intersecting discriminations they face based on their gender, age, disability and other factors, as the UN rightly and alarmingly pointed out in its 2017 Resolution on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
As we celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3 December, one cannot but conclude that for women and girls with disabilities in Europe full inclusion is also still a distant aspiration. Political awareness, however, is rising, and initiatives are being taken to empower these particularly vulnerable women and girls and protect their rights to enable them to fully and equally participate in society.
The prevalence of disability in the EU is higher among women than men. Women are the majority (54 %) of people with disabilities and are more likely than men to report a basic activity difficulty (15.1 % versus 12.9 %) or a disability (14 % versus 11.7 %). Considering the increase in the number of elderly people and longer female life expectancy, this number is expected to increase.
Legal and policy framework
Under the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), often described as the ‘international bill of rights for women’, and the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which sets out a worldwide agenda for women’s empowerment, all EU Member States are committed to upholding and protecting women’s rights and eliminating the additional barriers some women, e.g. women with disabilities, face in achieving full equality and advancement. The EU itself is not party to CEDAW, but gender equality, non-discrimination and protection of human rights are established general principles of the EU.
The 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is the first human rights convention to which the EU has become a party, and is the first international legally binding instrument setting minimum standards for rights for people with disabilities. The CRPD not only introduces a human rights based approach in disability policies (moving away from medical and charity models), it also explicitly recognises discrimination on the ground of gender and disability (Article 6) and calls on State Parties to take measures ensuring women with disabilities full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Optional Protocol to the CRPD allows for submission of complaints to the CRPD Committee by individuals and groups of individuals, or by a third party on behalf of individuals and groups of individuals, alleging that their rights have been violated under the CRPD. For the EU, the CRPD Convention entered into force on 22 January 2011. In addition, all the EU countries have signed and ratified the Convention, and 22 EU countries have also signed and ratified its Optional Protocol.
The international community’s commitment to advancing the human rights of women with disabilities was also strengthened with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (A/RES 70/1), which pledges to ‘leave no one behind’. While not explicitly mentioned under Goal 5, ‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’, women with disabilities are included in target 5.1, ‘End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere’.
The European disability strategy 2010-2020 (ESD) is a key tool to fulfilling the EU commitments under the CRPD, the CEDAW and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. The strategy entails actions in eight priority areas (accessibility, participation, equality, employment, education and training, social protection, health, external action) for the active inclusion and full participation of disabled people in society. However, the European Parliament and women’s rights organisations have criticised the lack of a gender perspective in the EDS, and that, despite progress in some areas, much more still needs to be done to improve the situation of both men and, especially, women with disabilities in the EU.
The 2017 EIGE Gender Equality Index (GEI) shows that women with disabilities in the EU score lower when it comes to access to the labour market, earnings and education level. Women with disabilities have a particularly low employment participation, with a FTE employment rate of only 19 %, compared to 28 % for men with disabilities, and the gender pay gap is similar to those who do not have disabilities. People with disabilities also face a higher risk of poverty and social exclusion than the general population. Here too, the poverty rate is slightly higher for women with disabilities compared to men with disabilities.
No less worrying is that women with disabilities indicate a higher prevalence of various forms of violence (see FRA 2014 EU-wide prevalence survey on violence against women). The biggest differences are found in terms of physical or sexual partner violence: 34 % of women with a health problem or disability have experienced this during a relationship, compared with 19 % of women who do not have a health problem or disability. Women with disabilities are also often denied equal sexual and reproductive rights. At the beginning of this year, the European Disability Forum (EDF) and CERMI Women’s Foundation released a comprehensive report denouncing the practice of forced sterilisation, which, under certain circumstances, is still carried out in some EU countries on women with (intellectual and psychosocial) disabilities.
EU accession to the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) in this context is an important step towards better protection of these rights. It is the first instrument in Europe to set legally binding standards to prevent gender-based violence, protect victims of violence and punish perpetrators, defining and criminalising various forms of violence against women, including physical, sexual, and psychological violence, stalking, sexual harassment, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, forced abortion and forced sterilisation
Action taken by the European Parliament
- The European Parliament has a cross-party Disability Intergroup, whose 188 members actively work on promoting disability policy and advancing the rights of persons with disabilities in their work at the European Parliament as well as at the national level.
- As a guardian of human rights, Parliament consistently raises gender and disability issues. In its resolution of 29 November 2018 on the situation of women with disabilities, it reiterated its call for gender and disability mainstreaming in the gender equality and disability strategies and all other strategies, policies and programmes of the EU and its member states, and called for concrete measures, in different areas, including positive measures, to protect the rights of women and girls with disabilities.
- The European Parliament has also consistently taken a strong stance on the issue of violence against women, including women with disabilities, and has repeatedly called for EU accession to the Istanbul Convention (the EU signed the Convention in June 2017) and for its ratification by individual Member States.
For further reading:
- The European Disability Strategy 2010-2020, EPRS briefing, July 2017
- Discrimination and access to employment for female workers with disabilities, IPOL study, August 2017
- Violence against women in the EU: State of play, EPRS briefing, November 2018
- The Istanbul Convention: A tool to tackle violence against women and girls, EPRS at a glance, November 2018
- EIGE Fact sheet on gender and disability, 2018
On inclusiveness and technology
- 3D bio-printing for medical and enhancement purposes, EPRS In-depth study, July 2018
- What if technology helped society become more inclusive?, EPRS at a glance, June 2017