How can we meaningfully include women and girls with disabilities in development programmes?

October 2023

Following our webinar ‘Be inclusive: reaching women and girls with disabilities in humanitarian and development programmes’, we asked our expert panellists some further questions. Here, we’ve summarised their responses.

The panellists include Sightsavers’ Abhilasha Sharma, UDPK’s Esther Mkamori, Light for the World’s Mathilde Umuraza, and Chair of Kakamega Disability Caucus in Kenya, Lucy Mulombii.

How can more women with disabilities access or be supported to access leadership roles?

Esther Mkamori: “Opportunities should be created for women with disabilities to participate at all levels. In Kenya, for example, it’s the government’s responsibility to budget for and provide reasonable accommodation to ensure women with disabilities can participate in public forums on an equal basis with others.

“Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can also play a significant role in supporting community-based initiatives that empower women with disabilities. This support can include trainings focused on leadership skills and participation in policy processes to help women with disabilities to become effective leaders within their communities and beyond.”

Mathilde Umuraza: “To achieve equal rights for all, it’s critical we mobilise the feminist movement and ensure that it is inclusive of women with disabilities. Women with disabilities have unique insights into the challenges they face, making them valuable contributors to the broader conversation about gender equality and disability rights.

Change to political and legal frameworks is needed to address the underrepresentation of women with disabilities in leadership roles. Temporary measures, such as quota systems, can increase the representation of women with disabilities at decision-making tables. These measures can serve as a bridge to more substantial long-term changes in the representation of marginalised groups.”

Watch a recording of the ‘Be inclusive’ webinar, held on 20 September 2023.

How do you think our work with men and boys (with and without disabilities) needs to change to support the inclusion of women and girls with disabilities?

Abhilasha Sharma: “NGOs can support women-led organisations of people with disabilities (OPDs) to lead in meetings with local, national and international organisations and government entities so they can share their valuable experiences and perspectives so their needs and preferences can be prioritised.

“By engaging men and boys in conversations where they can listen to the experiences of women and girls with disabilities, they can learn how to support them, without speaking on their behalf.”

Mathilde Umuraza: “To support the inclusion of women and girls with disabilities, firstly we need to challenge the negative stereotyping they face. There needs to be widespread recognition that gender and disability issues are not individual problems but social issues that affect everyone.

“By sharing practical examples of how changes that meet the needs of women and girls with disabilities can benefit everyone in society, we can emphasise that it’s not about losing power but creating a more equitable and harmonious society.”

Abhilasha Sharma: “We’ve found working with local influencers such as disability inclusion champions, teachers and government representatives, in collaboration with women-led or focused OPDs, to do community outreach is an effective way of influencing the behaviour of men and boys so they take steps to support the inclusion of women and girls.”

Esther Mkamori: “Cultural influences and the risk of women with disabilities being left behind need to be recognised within OPD organisations. Capacity strengthening efforts should therefore focus on addressing the gender imbalance in leadership positions within OPDs.

“Part of that process might involve engaging in conversations with men to understand and challenge the factors holding women back from leadership roles and introducing gender focal points within organisations to drive gender equality initiatives.”

“There needs to be widespread recognition that gender and disability issues are social issues that affect everyone.”

How can we address and challenge stereotypes about people with disabilities, including women and girls?

Abhilasha Sharma: “The first step to addressing stigma and discrimination is to understand what the negative stereotypes are and where they originate from. We’ve found that developing targeted messaging strategies, tailored to different audiences, including teachers and family or community members, and deploying these over time, can be successful in addressing negative stereotypes.”

Esther Mkamori: “We need to empower women with disabilities themselves to take the lead in challenging misconceptions. In one of our programmes, we empowered women with disabilities as ‘peer advisors’ to share information and train other women with disabilities within their localities. One of these communities was an indigenous, pastoralist community where women and girls are not viewed as equal to men and disability is viewed as a curse.

“The peer advisors mobilised women with disabilities in their community to discuss their rights, and the importance of organising and forming a movement. Within a year, the group of women with disabilities went into selling goats – an activity they traditionally wouldn’t have been involved in. Four years down the line, these women are economically and socially empowered and are participating in community and advocacy activities.”

What are the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of women and girls with disabilities, and how do we assist them to claim these rights?

Abhilasha Sharma: “According to Women Enabled International, an estimated one in five women have a disability, and they are just as likely to be sexually active as their peers without disabilities, despite inaccurate stereotypical views to the contrary. Accordingly, they have the same sexual and reproductive health needs as women and girls without disabilities.

“Due to multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination on the basis of gender and disability, however, women and girls with disabilities face unique and pervasive barriers to full realisation of their SRHR.

“Carrying out multistakeholder coordination and engaging with feminist and women-led organisations of people with disabilities is vital in responding to the SRHR needs of women and girls with disabilities. For example, our inclusive family planning project in Nigeria was designed with input from women-led disability organisations, including the Network of Disabled Women. We identified barriers related to bodily autonomy and informed choice for contraceptives, which we have used to design a social behaviour change campaign to address these barriers.”

Mathilde Umuraza: “Low rates of participation of women and girls with disabilities in development and humanitarian programmes are often associated with gender-based violence and/or unmet sexual and reproductive health needs. In Inclusive Futures programmes, we aim to have 50% of women and girls with disabilities participating across our economic empowerment, education and health programmes. For example, we provide reasonable accommodation to support women in childbearing roles who need to balance professional and parenting responsibilities.”

What is the role of gender and disability disaggregated data, how can it be used to support programming, and how can it be collected?

Abhilasha Sharma: “Collecting both quantitative and qualitative data, disaggregated by gender and disability, provides insights into the numbers of women, men, boys and girls with and without disabilities in the project area. The Washington Group question sets are a valuable tool for collecting data on disability. These sets cover six functional areas and assess functional difficulties and disability.

Programmes should conduct gender and disability analyses to understand existing gender norms, attitudes, and practices towards women and girls with disabilities. The findings from these analyses can inform the development of interventions specifically targeting women and girls with disabilities and identify and address any barriers to their participation.”

Mathilde Umuraza: “It’s important to remember that data collected in a different context and time may not accurately reflect the needs and realities of the target population. Conducting gender-inclusive analyses before project development helps us to understand the real needs of the community.

Designing disability-friendly data collection tools is crucial. These tools should be accessible to individuals with disabilities. It’s also important to consider factors such as visual, auditory, or cognitive impairments to ensure that data collection is truly inclusive.”

Lucy Mulombii: “Gender and disability disaggregated data informs inclusive planning for programme design and disability-inclusive budgeting. It also ensures accurate information in pertinent issues to inform policies.”

“Conducting gender-inclusive analyses helps us to understand the real needs of the community.”

How can women and girls with disabilities in rural areas be included in the programmes and benefit from them?

Abhilasha Sharma: “In some rural areas, OPDs might not exist, so established community groups such as mothers’ groups, women’s groups and self-help groups can be valuable allies. These groups can be involved as members in project working groups or steering committees to ensure the needs and interests of women and girls with disabilities are represented and included.

Lucy Mulombii: “Women and girls with disabilities living in rural areas face unique challenges. They often lack education and employment opportunities and are often left behind in development. We can counter this by ensuring they are included in committees and decision-making processes to ensure their voices are heard and amplified; that they have the opportunity to acquire new skills and knowledge, that they have access to inclusive education; that they can participate in programmes which help them to become economically independent and that they have access to reasonable accommodation and aids that can improve their quality of life and allow them to participate in programmes on an equitable basis with others.”

What supportive policies have been established to support this cause?

Esther Mkamori: “Equality between men and women is a fundamental principle of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Article 6 of the CRPD obligates states to recognise the multiple forms of discrimination faced by women and girls with disabilities and to take measures to ensure their full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

“In Kenya, Article 27(8) of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 stipulates that the state should take steps to ensure that not more than two-thirds of members of all elective and appointive positions are of the same gender. While this provision promotes gender equality, it does not specifically address the inclusion of women with disabilities in these positions and more needs to be done to ensure they are represented in government positions.”

What measures can be implemented to make education inclusive of girls with disabilities?

Abhilasha Sharma: We’ve found that usually fewer girls than boys enrol in our Inclusive Futures education projects, as even when barriers to do with disabilities are removed, negative or limiting attitudes about girls’ education still persist. In order to address this, in Tanzania, we’ve carried out a gender and disability analysis using methods including the Child Functioning Module developed by the Washington Group and UNICEF. Our partners are using the findings to guide their advocacy messaging and teacher training, to narrow gender disparities and improve access to education for girls with disabilities.

As part of our inclusive education project in Nigeria, we supported women with disabilities to hold decision-making roles on the project’s steering committee. They worked alongside members of local government to design the project and monitor its implementation to ensure the needs of girls with disabilities were taken into account.

Is there anything you found that doesn’t work when trying to increase the participation of women and girls with disabilities?

Abhilasha Sharma: Our learning report outlines what we found works and what doesn’t work in increasing the participation of women and girls with disabilities in our development and humanitarian projects. You can also access the easy read version.