40 Years of CEDAW: Keeping Women with Disabilities on the Agenda

by Amanda McRae

A group shot of disability advocates from Sisters of Frida and Women Enabled who attended the 2018 UK CEDAW Review. Amanda is pictured on the far right wearing a red dress. To her right is Rachel from Sisters of Frida. Ana Peláez is in the center standing behind Eleanor Lisney from Sisters of Frida, who is sitting in a wheelchair with her legs crossed. On the left are two other women’s rights advocates from the UK.
WEI partner Sisters of Frida, WEI’s Director of UN Advocacy, and Women’s Resource Centre meet in February with CEDAW Committee member Ana Pelaez to discuss the rights of women with disabilities in the UK and worldwide (Photo credit: Sisters of Frida)

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). This human rights treaty, to which almost every country has signed on, has helped transform the world by providing a legal framework to ensure the respect, protection, and fulfillment of the rights of all women and girls, including women and girls with disabilities.

But for much of that 40 years, women and girls with disabilities have been left off of the women’s rights agenda in almost every country. The CEDAW Committee—the expert group that monitors CEDAW around the world—has long recognized the unique discrimination women with disabilities experience and has called on States to include women with disabilities in their gender equality efforts and to collect data on this group (to “measure what we treasure”).

We at WEI have seen, however, that women with disabilities are almost always invisible in the laws, policies, programs, and data collection efforts that those States put in place to ensure the rights of both women and persons with disabilities.

Earlier this year, I attended the CEDAW Committee’s periodic view of the United Kingdom and saw firsthand how States invisibilize disabled women. We worked with Sisters of Frida, a U.K.-based collective of disabled women, to report on continuing abuses against disabled women in the U.K., including gender-based violence, lack of access to employment and social benefits, and violations of sexual and reproductive rights. Sisters of Frida and I traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to witness the CEDAW review, and when the CEDAW Committee repeatedly asked the U.K. government about the situation of disabled women, it was clear the U.K. representatives had no clue. They instead cited statistics on women and disabled persons more broadly and had little to no information on the specific situation of disabled women.

This was demoralizing, as the U.K. government clearly did not “treasure” disabled women. But it was also affirming, because our concerns were being recognized and promoted by the world’s leading experts on women’s rights, who are holding countries like the U.K. to account. I’m not sure women with disabilities would have been so robustly included in the women’s rights agenda 40 years ago.

There is hope that the next 40 years of CEDAW will bring about profound and positive changes in the lives of women with disabilities, as the world is increasingly recognizing the need to ensure the rights of women in all of our diversity.

Indeed, in 2018, the first disabled woman—Ana Pelaez Narvaez of Spain—was elected to serve as an expert on the CEDAW Committee and is already having an impact on the Committee’s work holding States accountable for ensuring the rights of all women and girls, including women and girls with disabilities. Her presence on the Committee is showing States that they cannot ignore women with disabilities, and it is also starting to show women with disabilities that their voices and contributions are valued in women’s rights spaces. ♦

About the author Amanda McRae is the Director of U.N. Advocacy at Women Enabled International, where she represents WEI at the U.N. in New York and Geneva and develops strategies to advance the rights of women with disabilities through U.N. human rights mechanisms and other institutions. She previously served as a researcher at Human Rights Watch focusing on Europe and Central Asia and disability rights worldwide, and a global advocacy adviser at the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Women with Disabilities Submission to the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women: Mistreatment and Violence in Reproductive Health Care, including Facility-Based Childbirth

May 17, 2019 – This submission, intended to inform the Special Rapporteur’s forthcoming report to the U.N. General Assembly, outlines the causes, forms, and consequences of violence and mistreatment against women and girls with disabilities in reproductive health care settings, including childbirth settings. Drawing on examples from several countries, the submission highlights that women and girls with disabilities are subjected to forced reproductive health interventions, encounter physical, emotional, and psychological abuse in maternity care, and are more often stripped of their parental rights, due to discrimination, lack of provider training, and the inaccessibility of facilities, equipment, information, and communications.

The submission also outlines international human rights standards on respectful reproductive health care for women and girls with disabilities and provides the Special Rapporteur with recommendations for her report. This submission was drafted by Women Enabled International with contributions and endorsements from ten other organizations working to advance the rights of women and girls with disabilities around the world.

Download below.

Submission to the SR on VAW PDF

Submission to the SR on VAW Word Doc

WEI Submission on Older Women with Disabilities to the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

April 15, 2019 – This submission, which was endorsed by Ferdous Ara Begum (Gender and Ageing Issues Specialist and former UN CEDAW Committee member) and Lois Herman (Managing Director, Women’s UN Report Network), focuses on human rights issues faced by older women with disabilities, including gender-based violence, institutionalization, gaps in social protection, and barriers to accessing health care. This submission provides data on these issues, a human rights analysis of existing standards, and recommendations to States for how to ensure the rights of older women with disabilities in these contexts. WEI’s submission will inform the Special Rapporteur’s forthcoming report on older persons with disabilities, to be presented to the UN General Assembly in October 2019.

Download below.

WEI Submission to SR Disability on Older Women with Disabilities PDF

WEI Submission to SR Disability on Older Women with Disabilities Word Doc


10/28 UPDATE: Find the Special Rapporteur’s report here.

WEI and Disability Rights International Submission to the CEDAW Committee for its half-day of general discussion on trafficking in the context of migration 

February 14, 2019 – This submission to the CEDAW Committee was authored to inform its half-day of general discussion on February 22, 2019, to prepare for the elaboration by the CEDAW Committee of a General Recommendation on Trafficking in Women and Girls in the Context of Global Migration focuses on the trafficking of women and girls with disabilities.

In partnership with Disability Rights International (DRI), WEI enumerated the risks facing women and girls with disabilities to all forms of trafficking. Drawing on field research by DRI and the limited other available research addressing the intersection of disability and trafficking, this submission highlights the barriers and enumerates States’ duties to address the barriers that increase this risk- barriers to accessing information on trafficking and sexuality; isolation and institutionalization; social isolation and lack of quality interpersonal relationships; financial and caregiver dependence; impediments to accessing services and justice; unemployment and poverty; and risk factors inherent in global migration situations.

This submission also covers the need to include women and girls who become disabled as a result of being trafficked in policies and programs aimed at combatting trafficking. Lastly, this submission summarizes the relevant international legal standards and offers suggestions for inclusion in CEDAW’s forthcoming General Recommendation.

Download below. Submission is in English.

WEI DRI CEDAW Trafficking and Migration PDF

WEI DRI CEDAW Trafficking and Migration Word Doc

Election Results: States Elect Women with Disabilities to CRPD and CEDAW Committees 

In June, States elected women with disabilities to serve as members of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD Committee) and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee). These expert groups monitor State implementation of important human rights treaties addressing the rights of women and persons with disabilities.

Six new women to serve on CRPD Committee
On June 12, States elected six women, including five women with disabilities, to fill a total of nine open seats on the CRPD Committee. Prior to this election, only one woman served on this 18-member Committee, which monitors implementation of the rights of persons with disabilities around the world.

Women from Australia, Brazil, Ghana, Indonesia, Mexico, and the Republic of Korea were elected to the Committee. In addition to these six women, two current members of the Committee from Lithuania and Nigeria were re-elected, and one new member from Switzerland was also elected. WEI congratulates all of these new and re-elected members!

Newly-elected members will take up their positions in 2019. At that time, women will represent one-third of the total membership of the CRPD Committee, an important step towards gender parity and towards ensuring that issues affecting women and girls with disabilities are systematically included in the Committee’s work.

For more information about WEI’s work to inform the CRPD Committee elections, please visit: https://womenenabled.org/crpd-questionnaire.html.