The Impact of COVID-19 on Women and Girls with Disabilities

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The Impact of COVID-19 on Women and Girls with Disabilities: A Global Assessment and Case Studies on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Gender-Based Violence, and Related Rights

 

In 2020, the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) and Women Enabled International (WEI), alongside the U.N Partnership for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and eight local and regional organisations working to advance rights for persons with disabilities, partnered to undertake a global study of the impact of COVID19 on women and girls with disabilities, particularly as related to their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and their right to be free from gender-based violence (GBV). Through virtual consultations with and written survey responses from over 300 women, girls, men, and gender non-conforming persons with disabilities, their advocates, and their support persons from around the world, we have learned that in almost all contexts—Global North and Global South, in places hit hard by COVID-19 and others with a much lower rate of infection—women and girls with disabilities have been left behind. They have struggled to meet their basic needs, to access needed health services including those needed both because of their gender and disability, and have faced disproportionate risks of violence. In particular, this Impact Assessment identifies that: 

  1. Barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health (SRH) information, goods, and services and exercising bodily autonomy for women and girls with disabilities have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, in ways that are both similar to and distinct from other women’s experiences. For instance, some women and girls with disabilities who require the assistance of sign language interpreters or other assistants to access SRH services were no longer allowed to bring those individuals with them, due to social distancing rules. Lack of accessible and affordable transportation options meant that, when family planning clinics closed in local communities, women and girls with disabilities disproportionately could not travel to other communities to receive SRH services and goods. In two extreme cases, a deaf woman from Fiji and a non-binary autistic person from Chile could not access urgent SRH services and faced potentially dire consequences for their health and lives. 
  2. Women and girls with disabilities worldwide faced increased risk factors for GBV and compounded barriers to accessing GBV support services, police, and justice mechanisms. As women and girls with disabilities were confined at home with their families and lost their usual systems of support, tensions rose, leading to physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological violence against them. Family and friends who were new to caretaking responsibilities, or who were not receiving respite from those responsibilities, sometimes 3 withheld needed assistance or weaponized disability to denigrate or undermine women and girls with disabilities. At the same time, GBV support services became even harder to access due to lockdown measures, and police were re-allocated away from investigating GBV and towards enforcing COVID19 restrictions. Justice mechanisms also moved even more slowly in some contexts, leading to virtual impunity for perpetrators. 
  3. Women and girls with disabilities—often primarily due to their disability status—were cut off from other needed health services, lost access to employment and education, lost access to disability-related support services, and faced significant barriers to affording and accessing food, clean water, housing, sanitation items, and other basic needs. These other related rights issues impacted the ability of women and girls with disabilities to fully exercise their SRHR, bodily autonomy, and the right to be free from violence.

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