Europe must do more to protect women with disabilities

EESC: The EU must fight against and outlaw all gender - and disability-based discrimination affecting some 40 million women in Europe

On 11 July, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), a body representing European organised civil society, called on EU institutions and Member States to step up their efforts to protect women and girls with disabilities, who continue to face multiple forms of discrimination in EU society on the grounds of both their gender and disability, often resulting in their social exclusion.

In the opinion adopted at its July plenary session, the EESC stated that the EU and its Member States lacked a strong legal framework to protect and safeguard the human rights of all women and girls with disabilities. They also failed to factor disability into their gender policies. Similarly, there is no gender perspective in their disability strategies, which runs counter to existing disability-related legislation.

Women with disabilities need special support, yet there is no proper focus on them in any of the EU strategies, neither in the strategy on women nor in the strategy on persons with disabilities. It is as if they have disappeared, like they are of lesser value than the rest of the populationGunta Anča, the rapporteur of the opinion, told the plenary.

The Committee also urged the EU and its Member States to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and its Article 6, which concerns women with disabilities.

It also called for EU funds to be used to support the Member States in promoting accessibility and non-discrimination regarding women and girls with disabilities.

The EESC stressed how important it was for the EU and Member States to join the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, to which women with disabilities are three to five times more likely to fall victim than their non-disabled peers.

It called for improved access to healthcare for these women: both disability-specific as well as mainstream healthcare services. Healthcare facilities and equipment – such as mammogram machines and gynaecological examination beds – are often physically inaccessible to them, meaning that they find themselves excluded from preventive health measures, like breast screenings.

Despite constituting 16% of the total female population in Europe, amounting to 40 million women, this group is one of the most vulnerable and marginalised in European society.

Many decision-makers ignore this group, and there are not enough statistics or studies on it. These women's situation is not only worse than that of women without disabilities; it is also worse than that of their male peers,maintained Ms Anča.

They are often shut out from inclusive education and training, and their employment levels are low: 18.8%, in comparison to the 28.1% of men with disabilities who have a job. They do not take leadership positions and do not sufficiently participate in political and public life. All of this puts them at greater risk of social exclusion and poverty.

In the opinion, the EESC puts particular emphasis on sexual and reproductive rights, which are frequently denied to women with disabilities due to wrongful stereotyping and prejudices, both in the community and in the family circle.

Women with disabilities are often advised to undergo sterilisation, as it is often said that children are not for them. There is very little support available to those wishing to have a child, said Ms Anča. The EESC called for an end to forced sterilisation and for all women to be granted the right to make their own decisions about retaining their fertility or starting a family.

A number of legislative acts prevent women with disabilities from making decisions about their own lives. They face barriers to the enjoyment of their rights as EU citizens, said Ms Anča.

As well as the history, attitudes and prejudices which they have to fight, they are also completely ignored by the media, which "treat[s] them from an asexual medical perspective" at best, ignoring their capabilities and contribution to the surrounding environment.

The EESC suggested that the EU and Member States launch an awareness-raising campaign about disability-related legislation, which should make women with disabilities more visible and help combat prejudice against them.

During the debate on the opinion at the EESC plenary, it was pointed out that women with disabilities should actively participate in the EU elections, not only as voters, but also as candidates.

The opinion was drawn up at the request of the European Parliament to be used as input into the Parliament's forthcoming report on the same topic in the autumn.