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Gender and Social Inclusion

The Time is Now: Meeting the Rights of Displaced Persons with Disabilities

Today is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Those of us in the United States hope that the U.S. Senate will help us mark the 2012 observance by voting tomorrow for ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I urge my American readers to contact your Senators immediately to urge them to vote “yes” on ratification of the Convention and help advance the rights of persons with disabilities across the globe.

To live free of violence and persecution is a fundamental human right. But for many persons with disabilities, especially women and girls, this most basic right remains elusive at best. Every time I read the shocking statistic that persons with disabilities are three times more likely to be victims of rape and other physical and sexual abuse, I am reminded of the sobering finding of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women who said in her August 2012 Report to the U.N. General Assembly that “violence against women with disabilities remains largely unaddressed.”

I also know the statistics may be even worse for refugee women and girls with disabilities. Over the last year, I have met with refugees with disabilities in 6 countries. In every one of them, the refugee women confirmed that they were at risk of all of forms of sexual and gender-based violence. In one country, the U.N. refugee agency reported that during a two year period, 49% of all rape survivors over the age of 18 were persons with mental and/or physical impairments and over 75% of survivors of attempted rape were persons with disabilities.

There are so many factors that put refugees with disabilities at risk of sexual and other forms of violence. The refugees with whom I work often point to their isolation from the broader refugee community, their exclusion from decision making processes and assistance programs, challenges in accessing basic safety and security information and difficulties communicating with police or community watch teams. These factors also make the issue more invisible in communities.

The breakdown of traditional support systems that characterize any situation of forced displacement can have especially dangerous consequences for refugees with disabilities. They can find themselves at even higher risk from their own caregivers or neighbors. As one refugee woman in Nepal told me, “To outsiders everything looks fine, but actually they’re neglected, beaten and abused by the family.”        

I have focused in this piece on vulnerability of refugees with disabilities to sexual and other forms of violence because we are also in the middle of the annual global campaign, 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence. This campaign gives us all an opportunity to focus on the essential steps that must be taken to end this violence wherever it occurs. The hopeful news for refugees and other displaced persons is that there is greater awareness of their needs and a better understanding of the ways in which their rights are ignored or violated. This is translating into better policies and guidance. I am heartened, for example, that the U.N. refugee agency has made preventing and responding to gender-based violence against persons with disabilities one of the six action areas in its updated strategy to address sexual and gender-based violence.

The challenge as always is to make sure that new policies and guidance are well implemented in the field and that refugee communities and service organizations have the practical tools and resources they need to support full inclusion for persons with disabilities in every aspect of community life. We can make significant strides by acting on what refugees with disabilities themselves are telling us about the risks they face and the solutions they recommend.

And to get back to the point I made at the top of this piece—I’d love to be able to send a message tomorrow to the hundreds of refugees with disabilities who have attended our consultations this year with the great news that the United States Senate has ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Take action today!

Gender and Social Inclusion