We need to include women with disabilities in the narrative

Ariana Almeida, Women’s Economic Empowerment Technical Specialist (Innovation to Inclusion), Plan International UK

Ariana Almeida tells us why this International Women's Day, we’re calling on everyone to #ChooseToChallenge gender inequality and disability discrimination.

Miriam at Safaricom

International Women’s Day is a global celebration of advancements on gender equality. It also offers us an opportunity to reflect on the barriers that impede women’s full equality and inclusion.

This year’s theme is “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”. The global pandemic has exacerbated the specific and ongoing challenges facing women, particularly in relation to their full and meaningful inclusion in political, social, economic and cultural life. These challenges are being experienced disproportionately by already-marginalised groups, such as women with disabilities.

The Innovation to Inclusion (i2i) consortium is funded by the UK government’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). i2i supports women with disabilities in Bangladesh and Kenya to access private sector employment and participate meaningfully and safely once in the workforce.

It is well known that women face structural barriers in engaging in the world of work. For women with disabilities, these gender-based inequalities are compounded by disability-based inequalities. That’s why, today, we’re calling on everyone to #ChooseToChallenge gender inequality and disability discrimination.

The voices of women with disabilities

Under the i2i project, Plan International spoke to women and men with disabilities, their caregivers, representatives from organisations of persons with disabilities (OPDs) and private sector employers.

We wanted to understand the specific challenges facing women and men with disabilities in accessing private sector employment.

Women are disproportionately burdened with domestic and unpaid care work. This leaves less time for engagement in formal employment. As one employed woman with disability in Bangladesh shared:

“Due to our family role (considering all the cooking, care work, reproductive role) we are not encouraged to take more responsibilities because we are overwhelmed to balance this role and expectations from family and society.”

Lack of access to public spaces

Also, discriminatory gender norms restrict women’s mobility and freedom to access public spaces, including public transport. As a result, women may not be able to access educational and skills-building opportunities safely. In both Bangladesh and Kenya women with disabilities reported safety concerns limit their use of public transport. This limits their opportunities for more active socioeconomic participation.

Women who do take up paid employment may also experience backlash, including domestic violence. A woman with a disability in Bangladesh told us that “before I had no problem with working, but after getting married working is affecting my relationship. My husband is always complaining that I am not performing my family role and household activities as per his requirements.

Women with and without disabilities are also at risk of harassment and stereotyping. This happens both in the workplace, and on the way to and from work. Women with disabilities in Kenya shared that they felt “safety and security is not guaranteed when you are working” especially if a woman works late shifts, and that “the risk of being raped or robbed on your way home is high.”

Taking action

We need a holistic approach to address the barriers preventing women’s full and meaningful inclusion. In practice, this means working with women with disabilities and their organisations. But it also means engaging families, communities and private sector companies too.

We need to support women with disabilities to build skills and confidence. This will enable them to take advantage of employment opportunities. Ensuring family members value their wife/daughter’s engagement in the workforce is also critical. The key to this is making changes so that women have time to take up employment. This includes the redistribution of domestic work.

Companies must also have inclusive policies, organisational culture and infrastructure. These will enable women with disabilities to fully and safely participate in office life and progress in their careers.

More widely, it is critical to ensure legislation and policies are informed by robust, sex-disaggregated data. They need to be responsive to the demands of persons with disabilities themselves.