Protection of Women and Girls with Disabilities during COVID-19: A Priority!


According to UNICEF globally more than one billion persons of the world’s most significant and most frequently overlooked minority groups are estimated to be living with disabilities, out of whom 80 per cent are in developing countries. The average prevalence rate in the female population at 18 years and older is 19.2 per cent, compared to 12 per cent for males, thus representing about 1 in 5 women.


International human rights law guarantees everyone the right to the highest attainable standard of health and obligates governments to take steps to prevent threats to public health and to provide medical care to those who need it. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are premised on the principle “Leaving No One Behind” and promotes intersectionality.  


Evidence has revealed that globally including in Africa, thousands of women are being subjected to violence and discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic. Older women, women and girls with disabilities, migrants, refugees and internally displaced women, and those belonging to minorities and other marginalized groups are increasingly vulnerable. They have limited or no access to; sexual and reproductive health and rights, community support services, communication and information, health care, opportunities for education and employment, and accessing justice in view of their status.


UN Women East & Southern Africa Regional Office convened a special meeting of the 'Regional EVAW (Ending Violence against Women) Reference Group', which comprises experts on EVAW, Gender and Disability and Youth to review and analyze the situation of women and girls during COVID-19. The meeting also focused on the challenges faced by women with disabilities. The members expressed concerns that the pandemic which has brought about social distancing joined by economic hardships and stress may make  it more difficult for women and girls with disabilities to receive treatment and health services. 


According to Nadia Uwimana, Member of UN Women Regional EVAW Reference Group and Legal Representative of Association for women with disabilities (Les Vaillantes), “there are many case of violence against women with disabilities in different forms, reported during COVID-19, and many women suffer in silence. First, there is domestic violence where women with disabilities are forced to stay at home, without the right to go out. Then there is the case of sexual abuse of disabled girls by family members or by people of the locality. There are also cases of exploitation of the disabled girl by her family. There are also cases where girls with disabilities, due to economic hardship are forced to cohabit with men and also face stigma and discrimination. Most of these cases remain undisclosed." 


'I know a girl who lived with her paternal aunt. This girl was an amputee. One day when her aunt was not at home, her aunt’s husband took the opportunity to rape this girl. She ended up becoming pregnant. The same man kicked her out of the house when he found out she got pregnant.'

Harmful myths make women with disabilities easy targets. In some regions in Burundi for instance, it is believed that having sex with a virgin girl or a girl with albinism may cure HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Girls and young women with disabilities are often perceived as virgins and targeted because of their disabilities.


Mary Balikungeri a member of the UN Women expert group on EVAW and President of the Rwanda Women’s Network and Coordinator of Rwanda’s National Coalition on EVAW stated; "the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the feeling and fear of sexual violence among women and girls with disabilities. As per our current assessment COVID-19 is affecting women and girls with disabilities living alone. Movement outside has reduced in line with the stay at home mandate, and women with disabilities staying alone, upon foreseeing a threat, realize none will come to support them as everyone is in their homes."


'The time couples are spending together at home has also increased domestic violence for women with disabilities who have been subject to subordination to their husbands: for example I heard a case of a woman going through sexual violence, where she cannot say no to her husband who wants sex a number of times, despite her refusal, thereby committing marital rape leading to family discord.'  


Access to health & psycho-social services for women with disabilities is extremely important and essential for saving lives.  The social determinants of health mean that women in low-income and rural communities are more likely to live and work in areas that have industries that deal with toxic materials and also lack access to healthcare. A multi-pronged approach needs to be adopted in provision of health and psycho-social services, through virtual access and especially in emergency cases - physical access. This will include facilitation of transport, provision of sanitary pads, hygiene items and providing safe and timely support by adopting a survivor centered approach.  Accordingly, governments need to ensure access to treatment and lifesaving services for women and girls with disabilities in line with the SDG Goal of "Leaving No One Behind."  


Dr Sadiq Syed, Regional Program Manager-EVAW, UN Women East & Southern Africa Regional Office highlighted; “Specific priority attention should be devoted to the needs of women with disabilities, to ensure their access to information about the pandemic, including prevention measures, the ability to maintain social distancing, and access to health facilitates. Other necessities include food, housing, sanitation and essential support services; legal, psycho-social, health and protection services. Thus, we need to ensure legal assistance and access to judicial remedies for women and girls through virtual hearings for those who are subjected to sexual violence, intimate partner violence, harassment and abuse," Dr Syed, emphasized.