Where does a disabled woman go for rights advice and support? Many might say if her needs are about access or disability health rights, she should go to a disability rights organisation. If her rights issue is about sexism or sex discrimination she should seek help and support from a women's rights organisation. But why should she have to choose? Rights issues are often complex, dynamic and if a woman is also disabled (or indeed have any other personal characteristic deemed minority such as gender status, race or sexual orientation) she often finds it difficult to navigate to the correct support network.
The mainstream woman's movement has frequently been accused of looking at female empowerment and equality through a fairly rosy lens. High profile feminist activists have historically been from very educated backgrounds, and sometimes taken an academic stance to women's equality. Gay women, trans women, poor women, and black women have historically found their problems sometimes marginalised by the feminist agenda. Feminist preoccupation with campaigns such as equal pay, right to work, equality in housework, and female representation on Boards are all valid subjects of focus for the women's agenda, but many women face adversities that prevent them from even being in a position to confront such problems.
Disability rights campaigners in western countries are increasingly recognising a divide from women's rights organisation, and seeking to take steps to bridge this. A leading UK disability rights campaigner, Karen Andrae, from the Gender and Development Network which established its own Gender and Disability Group says:
"We have heard from disabled women who were rejected by mainstream women's organisations because of the prejudice and poor status associated with disability. But there are also examples where disabled women were welcomed with open arms and even held highly responsible positions within the women's organization"
These challenges faced by women in the West are hugely magnified by disabled women in poor countries. Andrae, with her colleague Sylvie Cordier from the Gender and Development Network, will be addressing this subject at this year's African Initiatives Annual Women's Rights Conference, which marks International Women's Day each year. Their workshop will focus on the life conditions of women and girls with disabilities in developing countries and how to ensure they get included in the development process.
In moving forward it is important that both disability rights organisations and women's rights organisations seek a collaborative approach. Karen Andrae notes:
"There is a journey for both but it is mainly about understanding each other's situation, i.e. to understand the issues they have in common and the specific issues of disabled women. There are definite parallels to be drawn between discrimination lived by women and discrimination lived by disabled people, all linked to negative attitudes and prejudices".
In seeking to develop joint and collaborative approaches, there is a concern that disability and women's rights organisations may need to choose to discard their priorities, or dilute their focus to achieve greater inclusion. But this needs not be the case argues Andrae:
"Feminist activist need to realise that they are missing a huge opportunity in gaining additional voices to raise pressure and to really represent all women. Disabled women need to become more pro-active in recognising common concerns beyond disability issues without having to abandon those.There are many examples of really good practice and those need to be shared more to encourage disability right activists and feminist activists to close ranks more consistently".
With UK political attention firmly focused on the 2015 general election, Andrae points out that the year is important for global focus on action for disabled women:
"2015 is a crucial year for everyone both in developing but also in developed countries, with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) being discussed and agreed later in the year. Leave no one behind was the message of the UN Secretary General in the report on post-2015 in June 2013. This message has to be adopted by all parties and we need to ensure that development processes do not reach only low hanging fruits as with the MDGs; full and active participation of representatives of all groups including disabled people, and particularly disabled women, is needed in development processes and their monitoring."
The African Initiatives Women's Rights conference is on Saturday 7 March 2015, 9.30am - 4.15pm in Central Bristol. Contact African Initiatives for more information on attending the conference.