AUCD & the Center on Disability Studies Host "Standing Room Only" Side Event at the United Nations Conference of State Parties to the CRPD

October 4, 2011

By Charmaine Crockett, CDS

With over 500 delegates from civil society and governments, the three day United Nations Fourth Session of the Conference of State Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons (CRPD) held at the United Nations Secretariat from September 7th-9th, 2011,  generated diplomatic discussions and debate evolving around the conference theme, "Enabling Development, Realizing the Rights of Persons with Disabilities." With a pre-conference [non-governmental organization (NGO) forum] over 35 side events and workshops, evening receptions and informal discussions, the hundreds of advocates and experts representing hundreds of millions of persons with disabilities worldwide no doubt felt optimistic, even if only cautiously.

To date, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has been ratified by 103 States and 149 countries, the United States being among the latter. Of concern to many is the invisibility of persons with disabilities in the Millennium Development Goals, unarguably one of the most important initiatives in the last century. While the United Nations recognizes more efforts are needed to integrate and mainstream disability into action plans, including development, it supports and encourages civil society to voice concerns and make recommendations. On September 6th, The Department of Economic and Social Affairs co-sponsored a civil society forum with the International Disability Alliance, a prominent network of global and regional organizations of persons with disabilities (DPOs) which promoted the effective implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  

The purpose of the Forum was to 'engage NGOs and DPOs in a discussion and to promote civil society involvement' in a proposed high level UN meeting on Disability and Development in 2012 at the 67th session of the General Assembly. Issues and concerns were raised related to negotiating processes, outcome documents and more informally, 'walking the talk' when it comes to inclusion and involving persons with disabilities in all development efforts.  For COP newcomers the acronyms and challenges were daunting but one theme persisted: persons with disabilities must be included in UN mechanisms and initiatives and their rights must be guaranteed. 

The Conference of the Parties is the governing body of the Convention, and advances implementation of the Convention through the decisions it takes at its periodic meetings. Roundtable discussions during the Conference focused on the issues related to international cooperation, participation in political and public life, and the right to work and employment for persons with disabilities. Opening remarks to the Conference included the Deputy Secretary General who stated, "Even today, almost five years after the adoption of the Convention, too many persons with disabilities do not even know this historic instrument exists. Far too many are denied the rights it is supposed to guarantee. As long as they are denied those rights, we cannot rest. And, as we have been previously reminded by the brilliant musician and UN Messenger of Peace - Mr. Stevie Wonder - for as long as even one person with a disability is left without an opportunity, then we should not allow ourselves to stop caring."

Nongovernmental organizations were encouraged to organize side events to promote research, activism, and networking among disability rights organizations. The University of Hawai'i Center on Disability Studies (CDS) took that leap and organized a panel   on gender and disability, held on the first day of the conference. The event, entitled "Gender Perspectives:  Using International Law to Advance the Rights of Women and Girls with Disabilities," was co-sponsored by CDS, together with the Association of University Centers on Disability, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and the United Nations Population Fund.

The Panel

The raison d'être for a focused discussion on women and girls with disabilities is because of  persistent underrepresentation in data collecting, social and medical research, exclusive development practices, and policymaking. Women and girls face multiple discriminations because of their gender, poverty and disability. Domestic violence, abuse and exploitation are experienced   more   by women with disabilities than women without disabilities (estimates suggest 3 times the amount). The panel highlighted the numerous challenges for girls and women with disabilities but also emphasized and delineated the potential solutions and new directions in policymaking, research and advocacy. 'A fundamental barrier to identifying, advocating for, and meeting the needs of women with disabilities is that persons with disabilities are still primarily viewed as objects of welfare or medical treatment rather than holders of human rights," Dr. Henia Dakkak stated during the panel. 'Despite being entitled to all human rights, persons with disabilities are still, in practice, denied the fundamental rights and freedoms that are outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the CRPD."  

The panel harnessed some of the most brilliant minds in disability law and advocacy. Likewise, the audience included ambassadors, ministers, heads of non-governmental organizations and United Nations personnel. Moderating the discussion was Carole Petersen, a CDS delegate and law professor at the University of Hawaii, who jump-started the discussion by reminding everyone that the CRPD recognizes women and girls who face multiple discriminations. Shifaana Thowfeque who spoke on behalf of Akiko Ito, Chief of the Secretariat in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) at the United Nations, spoke eloquently on the UN mechanisms which address gender and disability while outlining promising collaborations between disability organizations and UN agencies.

Stephanie Ortoleva, human rights legal advisor and former lawyer and coordinator for the Department of State, declared that women must achieve equality and demand to be heard. Sounding the clarion call, she argued the basis for inclusion should not be argued - girls and women with disabilities are part of all societies and need to be part of the solution in advancing rights. She proposed a theory of 'gender-focused disability mainstreaming' claiming that entities, including the United Nations, can be innovators and use both gender mainstreaming and disability inclusion as a predominant framework for initiatives.  Citing inclusion gaps within the UN system including the exclusion of girls and women with disabilities in national action plans, conflict and post-conflict environments, and international gender specific programming, Ortoleva dazzled the audience with data driven inequities juxtaposed with a 'to do list' of righting the wrongs for girls and women with disabilities. These included practical steps activists, diplomats, agencies and NGO's can take (for a complete list please visit www.pacrim.hawaiie.edu and click on the disability rights blog).

Representing the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Dr. Henia Dakkak's talk entitled, 'Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Women with Disabilities, Including in Humanitarian Situations' was a diplomatic plea for reproductive rights. Giving numerous examples of the lack of sexual and reproductive health services, forced sterilization and abortion and violence, she shocked the audience with the immensity of the problems and challenges women and girls with disabilities face. Dr. Dakkak, a medical doctor, discussed the plight of refugees with disabilities - an issue seldom discussed in the disability movement or in humanitarian policy making. A lack of research and data has put refugees with disabilities - and especially girls and women - in situations which leave them profoundly vulnerable. This vulnerability can increase their risk of suffering, which can also increase and perpetuate disability. In many refugee camps, a lack of specialized doctors of health care workers and communication challenges and non-accessible formats and venues prevented many girls and women from expressing their needs.  The UNFPA support to the CRPD was evident: the Fund's strategic plan provides the overall direction for UNFPA support to countries in the three interrelated focus areas of population and development; reproductive health and gender equality. The UN agency places a special focus on marginalized groups; and, most importantly, makes explicit reference to women with disabilities. She stated the UNFPA was committed to supporting national efforts to improve the life and well being of women with disabilities. Dr. Dakkak suggested practical action plans to reduce barriers and discrimination against girls and women with disabilities as well as make recommendations to end gender based violence and mainstream gender and disability in humanitarian and emergency situations. (For specific recommendations please visit the www.pacrim.hawaii.edu website under the disability rights blog).

Rangita DeSilva De Alwis, Director of International Human Rights Policy at Wellesley Center for Women at Wellesley College ended the panel lineup with a stirring presentation entitled, "Mining the Intersections of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the CRPD in Theory and in Practice: Case Studies from Nepal and Bangladesh." Citing the transformative impact of the human rights framework, she stated that while the rights rhetoric was a powerful discourse, the transformative potential of human rights lies in the translations of rights into action and practice. Dr. DeSilva De Alwis cited two case studies in which the women's rights movement and disability movement came together, seizing moments in the political histories of countries. Intersections provide a strategic way to mobilize and galvanize constituencies. The case studies 'became a clarion call for action' and the women's movement was mobilized by this need to place the rights of women with disabilities as a pivotal and integral part of their own action plans.

Following the four presentations, the standing room only audience actively engaged in rich discussion on the steps need to better realize an equitable world as well as the realization of the rights encoded in the Convention. All agreed that more research is needed to obtain data that is disaggregated for gender, disability and age. The moderator concluded by thanking the sponsors, the panelists and the audience for their energetic engagement with the issue. 

Note: The Center of Disability Studies at the University of Hawaii is active in disseminating information and sharing best practices on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Each year it holds and annual forum entitled, "The Pacific Rim International Forum on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as well as publishing an annual proceedings book. For more information, please visit www.pacrim.hawaii.edu or contact cccrocke@hawaii.edu or the CDS Director and Chair, Dr. Robert Stodden at stodden@hawaii.edu.