When women are empowered, we all benefit

This World Disability Day, we highlight the vital role that women play in making disability rights a reality.
A group of eight women with disabilities gathers outside an office building in Burkina Faso. Two of the women have albinism.

Fact. When women have the power to make big decisions, the results are usually better. 

Research shows that women in influential positions tend to support and fund social issues. This affects everyone. Increasing women’s participation in politics, for instance, leads to higher investments in education.

What's more, when the voices of disabled women are heard, they can make all the difference for some of the most marginalised among us. It’s a point worth remembering, as the world’s biggest conference on the rights of people with disabilities opens this week, just ahead of 3 December – World Disability Day. 

Disability and women’s rights in focus

The Conference of State Parties to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – affectionately known as COSP – has been happening every year since 2006. The Convention is important because it defines the rights of people with disabilities as human rights. 

For the one in five women and girls who live with a disability, however, these rights are in danger. Women and girls with disabilities are most likely to experience violence (70%), least likely to be literate (45%) and least likely to be employed (19.6%) when compared both to men with disabilities and women without disabilities.

Graphic comparing the literacy rates of men and women without disabilities, and men and women with disabilities.

The UN Conference is a chance for governments and disability rights advocates to check in on these issues. To kick off the Conference, we organised a panel on how women with disabilities can help improve progress on development. Panel chair Yetnebersh Nigussie opened the discussion, noting that although women make up the majority of people with disabilities, they're the least likely to benefit from the gains made by countries seeking to meet their development targets. 

Diverse representation makes for stronger decisions

The speakers agreed on one strategy to close this gap: making sure more women – in all their diversity – are empowered to take big decisions. “We need women with disabilities in Parliament,” said Alexia Manombe-Ncube, Namibia’s Deputy Minister for Disability Affairs. “It has a direct impact.”

At Light for the World, we know how vital such representation is, because we see it in action every day. 

In Burkina Faso, we support UNAFEHB, the national union of women with disabilities. One of their ongoing tasks is to help women with disabilities understand their rights. With our support, UNAFEHB convinced Burkina Faso’s Ministry of Women to make its policies and laws disability inclusive. With each step, the network has grown, and the women who run it have gained greater confidence to fight for their members’ rights.

A voice at the highest levels

Diverse representation also matters at the highest levels, with the potential to affect tens of millions of lives. Take the UN disability rights convention. In 2016, the committee of 18 experts that monitors its implementation included just one woman. Dismayed, Light for the World joined a group of NGOs to campaign for the election of more women to the committee.

A woman wearing glasses smiles at the camera. She wears a traditional African dress in purple and yellow and is seen from the shoulders up.

Gertrude Oforiwa Fefoame, women’s and disability rights advocate from Ghana. © CC BY-SA 4.0

The campaign was a success. Two years later, six women with disabilities joined the committee, one of whom was Gertrude Oforiwa Fefoame, a women’s and disability rights expert from Ghana who works with Sightsavers. Since her election, the committee has issued several pieces of guidance. It has also called for funding for organisations like UNAFEHB that represent women and girls with disabilities. 

On World Disability Day, new committee members will be in place. With our partners, we’ve continued to advocate for a more gender equal composition and this year, our collective efforts have paid off. For the first time ever, women will make up the majority of the Convention’s committee members. 

Women with disabilities in leadership make a huge difference to marginalised groups globally. They – like everyone else – must have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.