We Cannot Forget Women and Girls with Disabilities in the SDGs

By Jaimee A. Swift

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) serve as a global agenda of accountability to address and end inequalities, injustices, and prejudices that affect the world. With 17 goals and 169 indicators, the goals are a plan of action to end poverty, protect the planet and humanity, and ensure peace and prosperity.

In the quest to achieve these goals by 2030, it is imperative all women and girls — irrespective of race, gender, LGBTQIA identities, immigrant and/or refugee statuses, and more — are fully included, represented, and prioritized in the global conversation.

While Goal 5 of the SDGs and its targets seek to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, and there is a push to integrate gender equity throughout all of the sustainable development goals, it is critical to recognize the beautiful diversity and contributions of women and girls around the world, as well as their unique needs and challenges within the sustainable development agenda.

To fully achieve the SDGs, we must ensure that no woman or girl gets left behind — especially women and girls with intellectual and physical disabilities.

Photo Credit: Special Olympics

Photo Credit: Special Olympics

The Most Vulnerable to Violence

According to the World Health Organization, there are over one billion people living with some form of disability; representing 15 percent of the global population. Based on data from USAID, an estimated 80 percent of this population lives in developing countries. While anyone within this demographic are subjected to stigmatization and shame, women and girls because of their gender, often face “double-discrimination” and this intolerance can be heightened for those who are members of marginalized ethnic or racial groups, and/or part of LGBTQIA communities.

“People with intellectual disabilities are the most marginalized population in the world,” said Kristin Hughes Srour, Director of Global Health Community Programs for the Special Olympics, during a Google Hangout with the U.S. Fund for UNICEF’s End Trafficking Project and Together for Girls. “Women and girls with intellectual disabilities, especially in institutions, are faced with higher frequency of violence than those without.”

Photo Credit: Special Olympics

Photo Credit: Special Olympics

Studies show that women and girls with disabilities face disproportionately high rates of gender-based violence, sexual abuse, neglect, maltreatment and exploitation, and are twice as likely to experience gender-based violence compared to women and girls without disabilities. A 2002 UNICEF briefing showed that as many as 68 percent of female adolescents with intellectual disabilities have been abused before the age of 18, and a report by the American Psychological Association (APA) also found that women with disabilities have a 40 percent greater chance of intimate partner violence than women without disabilities.

Often denied reproductive health care as well, Human Rights Watch reports women and girls with disabilities are also subjected to forced sterilization for “various purposes, including eugenics-based practices of population control, menstrual management, and personal care, and pregnancy prevention (including pregnancy that results from sexual abuse).”

Photo: Daina Shilts, who was selected to participate in a Unified snowboard competition at the X Games, Courtesy of Special Olympics

Photo: Daina Shilts, who was selected to participate in a Unified snowboard competition at the X Games, Courtesy of Special Olympics

“This is why investing in girls is so important — especially women, girls and children with disabilities — because it is critical to realizing equal development across all areas of the post-2015 agenda,” said Mansi Mehta, Manager of Civil Society Partnerships at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF.

Working to End the Injustice

Fortunately, there are many organizations, activists, community leaders and others rallying in support and working diligently to ensure inclusion and access for women and girls with disabilities through advocacy, policy and programs, violence prevention and response, and more.

As the world’s largest sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities, Special Olympics utilizes the power of sport to encourage people with intellectual disabilities to discover new strengths, abilities, skills and successes. With more than 4.5 million athletes in 170 countries, and programs in over 220 countries, Special Olympics offers 30-plus Olympic-style individual and team sports that provide meaningful training and competition opportunities for persons with intellectual disabilities.

Photo: Loretta Claiborne, Chief Inspiration Officer of Special Olympics, running a race, courtesy of Special Olympics

Photo: Loretta Claiborne, Chief Inspiration Officer of Special Olympics, running a race, courtesy of Special Olympics

“Special Olympics is really working towards a world of inclusion — we want to create inclusive communities all over the world, where every person is able to fully participate, and be integrated and accepted into a community where they can unlock their full potential,” Hughes Srour said.

Recognizing that the participation of women and girls with disabilities is key to understanding their experience of violence and responding to it, Women Enabled International advocates and educates for the human rights of all women and girls, with an emphasis on women and girls with disabilities.

Working to include women and girls with disabilities in international resolutions, policies and programs addressing women’s human rights and development, Women Enabled International’s work focuses on many sectors, including access to justice, violence against women and girls with disabilities, body imaging and stereotypes, and women and girls’ with disabilities who are in war and post-war conflicts.

In addition, UNICEF has outreach programs to prevent women and girls with disabilities from being trafficked.

Photo Credit: Special Olympics

Photo Credit: Special Olympics

“UNICEF has a two-fold approach to prevent violence against children. The first piece of this approach is to strengthen child protection systems from the top down, and to address harmful social norms from the bottom up,” said Hannah Gould, the End Trafficking Fellow for UNICEF USA.

Overall, women and girls with disabilities matter because their voices, participation and realities are crucial in creating a more just, inclusive and equitable world.

“In order to achieve the sustainable development goals, [women and girls with disabilities] must be included, or else we will never break the cycle of poverty, and we will not achieve those goals,” Hughes Srour said.