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Advancing the Rights of Displaced Women and Girls with Disabilities: Stories from the Frontlines

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Speaker: Ambassador for Women and Girls, Natasha Stott Despoja AM (check against delivery)

A billion people in the world, 15 per cent of the population, have a disability severe enough that it limits their participation in family, community and political life. Eighty per cent of those billion people live in low and middle-income countries, where often access to basic health and social services is limited for all citizens.

We know that women with disabilities face specific challenges, including a greater risk of violence, and multiple forms of discrimination due to their sex, disability and economic status. This discrimination has compounding negative impacts on access to education, employment, health services and decision making.

The risks of discrimination and violence against women and girls with disabilities – be that domestic violence, rape, sexual assault or trafficking - increase significantly during times of humanitarian crisis and displacement. The loss of community and family structures and the loss of livelihoods all contribute to this added vulnerability.

In crisis situations, women with disabilities are frequently excluded from women's protection and empowerment activities. Displaced by conflict, they are unable to access life-saving sexual and reproductive health services. The difficulty of securing housing and land in post conflict settings jeopardises the recovery of physical and economic security.

When we set all this against the fact that the world is facing more simultaneous, major crises than at any time since World War II, it is something of a perfect storm for women and girls with disabilities. So today's discussion is especially timely, and important.

Australia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in July 2008 and was one of the first Western countries to do so. Our commitments under the convention to support people with disabilities apply equally in our domestic context and in our aid program.

Following ratification of the Convention, in 2008, Australia released its strategy, Development for All: Towards a disability-inclusive Australian aid program 2009-2014. The strategy aimed to ensure that people with disabilities are included in and benefit equally from Australia's international development assistance. A key focus of the strategy was the interaction between gender equality and disability in the formulation of aid policy and programs.

We are currently finalising our new strategy for disability-inclusive development to cover the period 2015-2020.

In addition to these strategies, Australia ensures that its humanitarian responses take into account the protection of all vulnerable groups.

In 2013, we released our first Protection in Humanitarian Action Framework.

The Framework commits Australia to funding and advocating for dedicated protection programs as well as for protection to be mainstreamed in humanitarian action. Three priority areas for Australia's protection work are:

  1. being accountable to affected populations
  2. protecting people with a disabilities and
  3. preventing and responding to gender-based violence.

So the architecture is well established and comprehensive, but what has it delivered?

Australia has been working actively in the Indo Pacific region to assist women and men with disabilities in developing countries to find pathways out of poverty, and we have prioritised support for women with disabilities in humanitarian contexts globally. The emphasis we have given to these programs has been described as 'exceptional' by the OECD Development Assistance Committee.

Practical examples of our commitments include our support to the Women's Refugee Commission to strengthen the capacity of disabled people's organisations to advocate for the inclusion of women and girls with disabilities in humanitarian action and to advance the rights and dignity of refugees and displaced persons with disabilities, through actions at global and country levels.

We have supported the global operations of the International Committee for the Red Cross's Special Fund for the Disabled and the International Committee of the Red Cross's annual Mine Action and Disability Appeals.

And last year we provided a grant to the National Union of Women With Disabilities of Uganda to strengthen its capacity to monitor implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We are fortunate to have Jolly Acen from this organisation speaking to us today.

Importantly, we have also been working over several years with partners to establish standards and deliver protection for vulnerable groups in crisis.

Efforts to identify and address the protection needs of women and girls with a disability in emergencies, in particular those experiencing or at risk of sexual and gender based violence, have often been inadequate or neglected. There has been a paucity of international and national guidance, tools, and identified good practices to address these situations.

So Australia has supported the Women's Refugee Commission (WRC) and UNHCR to drive a process of establishing such a framework.

Our funding enabled the Commission to work in partnership with the UNHCR to develop a workshop curriculum on Disability Inclusion in Programs for Refugees and Displaced Persons.

And we have supported the University of Sydney to conduct research and make recommendations for standards of good practice for the protection of refugees with disabilities in camp situations.

At the heart of everything we discuss at CSW are the personal stories of women and girls. I'd like to close with one such story before I hand over to the panel.

In 2009, the last year of Sri Lanka's civil war, a woman, Uthayarasa Nirmala was seriously injured in a shell attack, requiring the amputation of her leg, and her husband was later killed, making her a single mother. Returning home after many years in displacement camps, she found her home damaged beyond repair. With a grant from an Australian supported housing program for returnees, Uthayarasa built a new home for her son and elderly parents. In the security of her new home, she is now running a small tailoring business. She describes the home as a 'safe haven' for her and her family.

Uthayarasa's is a story of transformation and empowerment. I look forward to more of these from our panel.

Last Updated: 30 June 2015
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