Disabled women leaders: the new face of disability

Photo credit: AWWD

The face of disability in South East Asia is changing. Disabled women are becoming more visible in the disability movement and getting their voices heard. Kuhu Das, a disabled woman activist and Director of the Association of Women with Disabilities (AWWD) in India tells of her struggle and how a unique project is training disabled women to be new leaders.

I had polio in early childhood causing impairment in my mobility, so I am disabled. When I started working for the empowerment of women in general, I realised that empowerment programmes did not include disabled women. At every forum I would bring up issues around disability but I was the only person talking about it. Hardly any disabled women would come out and talk about themselves and their rights.

So I decided to work for the empowerment of disabled women. I started an organisation in 2002 called the Association for Women with Disabilities (AWWD). Through all this activity, I became a leader over time; not part of my plan, but it happened that way.

Disabled women in India face huge discrimination: as a woman experiencing gender discrimination and as a disabled person experiencing prejudices around ‘difference in abilities’. Disabled girls and women struggle to access rights to education, health, employment and others. They often have low self esteem, low levels of literacy and experience discrimination by their own families. Disabled girls and women living in rural areas are more deprived than those in urban areas as there are few support services, and gender-biased cultural practices are more common. This creates further barriers for disabled women to exercise their rights.

At AWWD we analysed the root of the marginalisation of disabled women. We saw that they are often invisible and unable to voice their discrimination. This is made worse by a lack of leadership among, and by, themselves. A situational analysis reflected the need for more disabled women leaders. So we started work to address this and gave birth to the project Creating spaces for Women with Disabilities to Communicate and Advocate for their rights. The project is really unique as we do not provide any kind of rehabilitation service or assistive appliances such as wheelchairs. We focus on supporting disabled women to be leaders and advocate for their rights. The disability rights movement is strong in India, but there is still gender discrimination within it. Policies, programmes and benefits have mostly brought changes into the lives of disabled men. It has not changed the lives of disabled women significantly. We need disabled women to be leaders to ensure their prominence in the movement for disabled people’s rights.

The project is regional. Core partners are Association of Women with Disabilities (AKASA) in Sri Lanka, Social Assistance and Rehabilitation for the Socially Vulnerable (SARPV) in Bangladesh and AWWD in India. We recognised the lack of evidence-based data and information about disabled women’s situations, attitudes of policy makers, and the shortcomings of disability projects run by governments and NGOs. Each partner carried out a base-line survey in their country. A study also gathered regional evidence in Nepal under the guidance of AWWD. Based on findings, we planned leadership training to create more disabled women leaders at regional, national and grass-root levels. Healthlink Worldwide in the UK provided technical support and guidance to design modules, develop materials and conduct leadership trainings to all the core partners.

The training prompts disabled women to think about leadership. Who is a leader? What kind of leader do you want to be? How can you be a good leader to influence other disabled women? How do power relationships, discrimination and marginalisation affect disabled women at all levels from the family to the wider community and nationally? How can you influence policy-makers and what is a good advocacy strategy? What is the existing international legislation for the protection of the rights of disabled people, and women specifically?

We conducted regional leadership training and 25 disabled women participated from South Asian countries. We then held national trainings in the three core countries – India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – for over 75 disabled women. We are conducting similar national level training in the other countries involved in the project, and training in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan is already planned for this year.

After the training, disabled women were highly motivated to take action and become more visible. They became more confident and better organised. Now when they have advocacy meetings with government representatives they talk with greater boldness and strategic intention.In India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, the governments know there are disabled women trying to get their voices heard.

New leaders are already in action. Rupa in India has started her own initiative to organise disabled women in her district, transfer her leadership skills and advocate for their rights. Nishintha in Sri Lanka started organising disabled women and is preparing to conduct leadership training at district level. In each country disabled women have formed networks to build nationwide movement and advocacy.

Across the region disabled women are communicating, sharing and disseminating information about their new initiatives to the global community. A network website – Network of South Asian Women With Disabilities (NSAWWD) has been set up, which is a good resource on disabled women’s issues. To continue the work, we want to provide seed grants to support these new leaders create a stronger movement, but currently the project’s support is limited and we need extra resources to do that.

In South East Asia, largely because of this initiative, disabled women are starting to understand that their rights cannot be claimed by anyone else. They are coming forward, speaking for themselves and showing strong leadership to other disabled women. I hope that every region can have a movement of disabled women and that we can link up in the future.

Kuhu Das is the founder and Director of the Association for Women with Disabilities, India kuhudas@awwdindia.org
Association for Women with Disabilities (AWWD)

David Curtis is Head of Programme and Capacity Development at Healthlink Worldwide Curtis.d@healthlink.org.uk

Female condoms: a life saving alternative

Female condom stand at the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) 2008 Photo: Ilze Smit

Female condom use could vastly reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. So what’s stopping women from using them? Lucie van Mens, of the Universal Access to Female Condom Joint Programme and Ilze Smit, of the World Population Foundation, consider the issues.

The female condom has been around for fifteen years. Today it is the only female-initiated prevention method that provides double protection – against pregnancy and disease. Yet the female condom is still not widely promoted or used. In a world where 200 million women have no access to contraceptives and one third of all pregnancies are unintended (and many unwanted) this is unacceptable. In sub-Saharan Africa where 61per cent of all new HIV infections are among women, this is indefensible.

Female condoms have several advantages over the male condom. Firstly women are in control over when they use them. The use of male condoms often has to be negotiated by women over and over again and relies on the cooperation of men. Female condoms have to be negotiated only once. If partners agree, women can simply apply the female condom to themselves every time they have sex. They can be inserted several hours before the sexual act takes place, and foreplay does not need to be interrupted.

The female condom is also highly acceptable to people. UNAIDS and WHO published a report in 1997 called The Female Condom: An Information Pack. Forty one studies of the female condom showed acceptance levels ranging from 41 per cent-95 per cent. In 2006 another study by Vijayakumar et al reviewed 60 acceptability studies and concluded that research on the female condom should move away from assessing acceptability. In other words, most people find the female condom acceptable to use.

In spite of its advantages and good characteristics, the female condom has been neglected as a reliable prevention method. This might be for a variety of reasons. The product suffers from a bad image, but so did male condoms when they first came onto the market, so there is a need to present the product in a positive light, with good marketing and appealing packaging. There is also currently a lack of variety in female condoms. The best known types are FC1 and FC2 made by the Female Health Company. The FC1 and FC2 are similar in shape and have both an inner and outer ring. The main difference is that FC1 is made of polyurethane, which can produce a ‘crispy’ noise. The FC2 is made of nitrile, a ‘silent’ fabric. The production process for the FC2 is also cheaper, making it a better product.

In order for women to have the choice to use female condoms, supply chains need to function well. Female condom programmes implemented up until now tend to run out of stock quickly after, or sometimes during, programmes. If women cannot rely on the availability of the product at the time they need it, they will lose interest. There should be more choice of products so that women can get the female condom that suits them, that fits best, and that they personally find easiest to use. More female condoms need to be available on the market. However any new health product needs to meet the quality control standards set up by the World Health Organization, a complex and costly process.

The Female Health Company’s condoms are the only products to have obtained this status and this has led to a near monopoly of the market. Finally, the cost of the female condom is currently too high. The procurement price for the female condom is up to 15 times higher than the male condom. This is partly because of the current limited market for female condoms, so increasing demand will inevitably bring down the price.

It is estimated that around 10 million Euros are needed for the development of a new low-cost female condom. This is a lot of money, but compared to investments in prevention methods such as microbicides and vaccines, the investment is relatively low.

Meanwhile, although new products are needed, there are still things we can do as donors and agencies to promote the use of female condoms in women’s sexual and reproductive health programming.

Lucie van Mens is coordinator of the Universal Access to Female Condom (UAFC) Joint Programme, employed at Oxfam Novib and Ilze Smit is advocacy officer of the UAFC Joint Programme at the World Population Foundation (WPF).

Contact details: info@condoms4all.org
Website: www.condoms4all.org