Celebrating Ten Years of Disability Work at WRC

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“I think it is important to share with you that I am a woman who has a disability. This doesn’t stop me though... I feel I have a very important job to do. I am working to make women and girls safer… those who are not always included in activities, those who are often forgotten about. I can remember times when that was me... Now, I am very active, I am a leader in our community… and I work as a social worker. I feel I have valuable things to add and that I can advocate for [them] because I understand their needs.” (Mieraf, My’ani Camp)

This is Mieraf. She is a social worker, a woman with disability, and a refugee living in My’ani camp in Ethiopia. There are many people, like Mieraf, who are refugees or displaced (66 million globally); among them, as many as 13 million are people with disabilities. The Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC)’s research and experience demonstrate that Mieraf and others like her face challenges to keep themselves and their families safe while living in a refugee camp, but we also know that she is resilient and has the skills and resources not only to keep them safe but also to contribute to solutions that help her community.

Over the past ten 10 years, the disability program of WRC has spoken with refugee women, children, and youth with disabilities who have been displaced by conflict and crisis, asking them about their lives and collaborating with them on how the humanitarian community can better protect their rights. Our groundbreaking report Disabilities Among Refugees and Conflict-affected Populations, published in 2007, documented research findings from five displacement settings and was the first of its kind to shed light on the situation of refugees with disabilities, as well as on their exclusion from humanitarian services and assistance. We also thought about how their exclusion can best be addressed; as such, we produced an accompanying Resource Kit for Fieldworkers. With these findings, plus a growing network of partners, WRC advocated for the UN Refugee Agency’s governing Executive Committee to adopt a major policy decision (Conclusion 110 (LXI)–2010) to ensure the rights of refugees with disabilities. We also  supported the subsequent rollout of their Global Guidance on Working with Persons with Disabilities in Forced Displacement.

To better address gaps in knowledge about refugees with disabilities, the disability program continued to consult with women, men, girls, and boys with disabilities living in displaced settings, asking about their sexual and reproductive health risks and needs, their experiences with gender-based violence and what keeps them safe, and advocating that they have a say in all decisions affecting their lives. We developed and piloted participatory tools and resources that would further support humanitarian actors to assess, monitor, and build their own capacity to strengthen disability inclusion in their work.

We found that, for the women, men, girls, and boys with disabilities who participated in programs with other refugees, positive changes were seen in their lives. The most fundamental change reported was that they were able to be seen as no different from anyone else — like any other woman, man, girl, or boy. 

“Sometimes we are just not included in activities or discussions, but there are things that are really important to us... We want to learn things, we want to go to school, we want to make friends, we want to be productive. Someday, some of us want to be wives and mothers, but people forget about girls with disabilities. They forget we have goals and dreams.” (Bolia, adolescent girl with disability, Burundi)

Furthermore, we found that organizations of women with disabilities from conflict-affected countries have insight, expertise, and knowledge to advocate on behalf of refugee women with disabilities; though, they do face challenges in accessing humanitarian funding and have inadequate organizational capacity to advocate effectively.

“We know how to assist women and girls with disabilities who are very vulnerable, who are being abused and mistreated. We know what they need and what services they should have access to. But we don’t always understand the referral systems and mechanisms that are available to women living as refugees and IDPs in our own country… While we want to help, and feel like we know how to help, we are still looking for the right entry points.” (Representative from Women’s DPOs, Kenya)

The disability program has been working with organizations of women with disabilities to address gaps in knowledge and awareness of the humanitarian system and its processes. We developed and piloted the Facilitator’s Guide on Strengthening the Role of Women with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action with partner organizations to build their capacity and advocate effectively for displaced women and children in their respective countries. Then we documented how organizations of women with disabilities were doing so successfully at the national and global levels.

As a member of the Inter-Agency Task Team on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action, WRC is working to connect the voices and concerns of displaced women and girls with disabilities — and the organizations representing them — to the global level, where globally-endorsed guidelines for the humanitarian sector are under development.

It’s been 10 years since the Women’s Refugee Commission initiated work on disability, and a lot has changed in the humanitarian field. Moving forward, we are committed — now more than ever — to continuing to drive change in humanitarian policy and practice toward a resilience-based approach that reflects the needs, skills, and capacities of displaced women, children, and youth in all their diversity. For more information about our work, please see our newly-developed fact sheet. We are grateful for your support.