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April 30, 2017 HUMAN RIGHTS

Accounting for Women and Girls with Disabilities in Conflict and Crisis Situations: Recommendations for Action and Implementation

Stephanie Ortoleva

The World Health Organization and the World Bank estimate that 19.2 percent of the world’s women are disabled women, and this number is rising due to many factors, including war and conflict. The need to address issues concerning disabled women in conflict resolution efforts is nominally recognized. Still, more must be done to include women with disabilities in conflict resolution and in assistance efforts in emergency situations.

USAID notes: “women often expand the scope of peace agreements [to] include concerns that peace processes dominated by men are more likely to leave unaddressed, including accountability for past abuses, psycho-social support for victims of violence, restoration of health and educational systems, reintegration of displaced persons and refugees, and the protection of victims of trafficking.” However, even if women are included in peacebuilding efforts, women with disabilities generally are excluded, based on disability and gender stereotypes and assumptions that disabled women cannot make decisions for themselves or are incapable of contributing to discussions on conflict resolution. The most effective discussions will include their unique perspectives and recognize that they are not just a group in need of protections but one that can meaningfully contribute. 

Issues Affecting Disabled Women in Conflict 

Women with disabilities are often overlooked in conflict situations, even though they are at greater risk for human rights violations that arise during wartime when compared to men with disabilities or women without disabilities and that “women are more likely to become disabled as a result of violence, armed conflicts, aging and gender-biased cultural practices.” Wars affect women more adversely than men. Conflicts often exacerbate existing problems for women with disabilities, who may lack access to community or familial support, education, or health care. Refugees with disabilities report difficulties accessing sexual and reproductive health care due to “negative provider attitudes” and costs of care. Disabled women may leave their wheelchairs, medications, assistive aids, and prosthetics behind in an attempt to seek safety. 

During conflict, all women are at increased risk of gender-based and sexual violence, spurred on by the breakdown of justice and protection mechanisms that otherwise help stem violence. Although all women suffer during conflict, women with disabilities are generally “more vulnerable to physical, psychological, sexual or financial violence, neglect, entrapment, and degradation” because they may be less able to flee conflict, be less able to defend themselves, and have less access to reporting and justice mechanisms. 

Even if they are able to flee combat, refugee camps often lack the infrastructure to assist women with disabilities and seldom provide accommodations in toilets, shelters, or health care facilities. Because infrastructure and other relief services are often inaccessible to them, they may rely on others to get the support they need, which can make them more vulnerable to gender-based violence. To reduce the risks for women with disabilities in conflict situations, advocacy by women with disabilities must be facilitated, drawing on women’s experiences of living and working in conflict areas. 

Good Practices and Lessons Learned 

  • Fostering collaboration between humanitarian agencies and organizations of women with disabilities elevates their voice in conflict resolution. A coalition of non-governmental organizations in Pakistan—including a national civil society organization, a humanitarian service provider, and a disabled women’s organization—hosted a forum on women with disabilities in Balochistan, the poorest state in Pakistan and one frequently beset by crises. This forum brought together different perspectives on crises and supported organizations to expand their networks for future collaborations. Similar partnerships in Uganda and throughout Africa have had a positive effect on the ability of humanitarian organizations to include disabled women in their planning and implementation efforts and on organizations of women with disabilities to develop expertise in humanitarian response efforts and become better self-advocates. 
  • Supporting leadership of women with disabilities within planning efforts helps raise the profile of issues affecting them. In response to a Women’s Refugee Commission survey, a United Nations agency representative in the Central African Republic highlighted the importance of “having an implementing partner focused on women with disabilities, and also led by a woman with disabilities” toward ensuring that disabled women were included in agency efforts and recognized in the wider community. Because a woman with a disability representing UNICEF in its Haiti earthquake response efforts had a seat at the table at important stakeholder meetings throughout the planning and implementation of those efforts, she broke down stereotypes about women with disabilities, changed the attitudes of officials working on earthquake response, and ensured that organizations of persons with disabilities were included. 
  • Providing targeted funding supporting the work of organizations of women with disabilities helps raise the profile of issues affecting disabled women in conflict situations and ensures their participation in humanitarian assistance and peacebuilding efforts. With funding, an organization of women with disabilities in Malawi undertook site visits to refugee camps and highlighted issues facing women with disabilities—including that they were selling sex in order to obtain access to humanitarian relief—to local and international authorities working on protection issues in that country. Once an organization of women with disabilities working in the Democratic Republic of Congo got on the Internet and publicized some of the statistics and stories it had gathered from women with disabilities during the conflict, it was able to tap into a “whole new audience” and connect women with disabilities to other humanitarian stakeholders. 
  • Ensuring accountability and pathways for women with disabilities to access justice during conflict helps raise their voices and highlight gaps in service provision and inclusion. A program by Equality Now in Uganda, #JusticeForGirls, tackled an epidemic of sexual violence in conflict areas that particularly affected women with disabilities by raising the national and international profile of instances of sexual violence, calling for changes to legal procedures and for increased protections for women with disabilities, and working through local channels to achieve justice. 


Learning from these good practices, entities engaged in conflict resolution, and in delivery of humanitarian assistance, should take the following actions to ensure inclusion of disabled women:

  • Establish an internal disability rights liaison/expert involved in the design, planning, and implementation of programs who can provide effective guidance concerning women with disabilities. 
  • Ensure the participation of women with disabilities in conflict resolution by:
    • Creating a specific fund for supporting disabled women’s organizations in conflict situations;
    • Establishing spaces for on-the-ground collaboration between humanitarian assistance organizations and disabled women’s organizations; and
    • Ensuring that spaces where conflict resolution efforts take place are physically and informationally accessible to persons with disabilities.
  • Promote accessible accountability mechanisms to ensure access to justice for women with disabilities who experience rights violations, including gender-based violence, as a result of conflict. Institute trainings for justice system actors that specifically target stereotypes about women with disabilities—including about their sexuality and capability of giving evidence—and train these individuals to provide reasonable accommodations in justice mechanisms.
  • Facilitate the involvement of local women with disabilities in the planning and design of humanitarian relief programs. Emphasize that humanitarian response services and social supports should be accessible to all women, including women with disabilities, and outline efforts to ensure disability accessibility, including by ensuring that buildings and sites are physically accessible, that information is provided in multiple formats including Braille and easy-to-read, and that sign language interpretation is available.

By taking these steps, the situation of women with disabilities in conflict situations and humanitarian emergencies will be significantly improved and their valuable contributions to the community ensured.

Stephanie Ortolova

President and Legal Director at Women Enabled International