Message from Ana Peláez Narváez: Women with disabilities and COVID-19

24 March 2020

Dear sisters with disabilities in Europe and dear women from the European disability movement,

The crisis caused by coronavirus led authorities in many countries to take drastic measures to enforce forced isolation to control the spread and to drastically manage and reinforce healthcare capacity and economic measures. These were measures never seen before, we never thought it would come to this.

We, at EDF, are proud of the efforts of the European disability movement and of our partners in humanitarian aid other human rights organisations and want to thank you for your work. We are all working tirelessly to ensure politicians and national and European authorities are aware of how COVID-19 has suddenly made people with disabilities and our families even more vulnerable. We need to make sure the same national, European and local authorities take us into consideration. Thanks to all of you! We will succeed!

Today, more than ever, I think of the many women and girls with disabilities who suffer domestic and sexual violence due to heightened tensions in their homes. I am thinking about women that care for dependent relatives (almost always mothers) who are confined to their homes and suffering anxiety because they are overloaded with tasks as a result of social services being cancelled. I am thinking about older women with disabilities aggravated by years of institutionalisation in homes and asylums, isolated and ignored. In short, I am thinking about the price women are paying and will pay during and after this global pandemic and, especially, those women who have a disability and those who are looking after relatives with disabilities. Our efforts must also focus on them.

On March 17th, UN Women published “COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean: how to incorporate women and gender equality in the management of the crisis response” (available in English, French and Spanish). This note looks at the impact of COVID-19 on violence against women and girls. It warns of the greater risk of falling victim to domestic violence during an emergency context such as this one. It points out that survivors of violence “may face additional obstacles to flee violent situations or to access protective orders or essential services that can save lives due to factors such as lockdown or quarantine.” It highlights that “[t]he economic impact of the pandemic can create additional barriers to leave a violent domestic situation and create higher risks of sexual exploitation.”

I am disappointed that the only reference UN Women makes to disability is through caregivers, whose role in managing this crisis is crucial, but where are the 19.2% of the total female population? Where are women and girls with disabilities?

Below are some guidelines so that you can incorporate gender-differentiated steps for women and girls with disabilities and for women carers of relatives with disabilities within your work:

  1. Ensure data disaggregated by sex and disability is available when compiling information within your organisations and carry out a gender analysis. Where possible, include differentiated infection rates, information on barriers faced by women when accessing available humanitarian aid, and the rates of domestic and sexual violence.

  2. Include the gender dimension in the responses you are offering to people with disabilities. Responses should differentiate the particular needs of women and girls with disabilities, but also the specific needs they may have within each specific disability group. This is about ensuring all people with disabilities who need it benefit from assistance without discrimination.

  3. Engage women with disabilities in all stages of your responses and in all decision-making processes within your organisations. Fortunately, many of your organisations already have women’s commissions or working groups, so you can use these mechanisms to perform effective consultations. You can also set up informal networks for women suffering most from the crisis, such as institutionalized women, older women, women carers, etc. The opportunity to interact with these women via WhatsApp or social media can be a real lifeline and lifesaver for them.

  4. Ensure women with disabilities working in healthcare, residential institutions or other social service providers, many in cleaning or cooking roles, are adequately taken care of and protected in the face of potential infection. For this, we must offer support to improve access to information, to personal protective equipment and to menstrual hygiene products, and promote flexible working methods.

  5. Foster direct consultations with organisations of women with disabilities concerning the situation faced by women and girls with disabilities, and in particular their needs and the steps that must be taken to face the pandemic, and make sure their thoughts, interests, contributions and proposals are included in your organisation’s responses. Although organisations of women with disabilities do not exist in all European countries, we have some highly experienced organisations that can provide support to organisations of persons with disabilities that may need it. The EDF Women’s Committee is at your disposal, and you may consult a list of organisations of women with disabilities across Europe

  6. Local organisations of women with disabilities or community-based groups of women with disabilities must be supported to make sure messages about prevention strategies and responses are accessible and understandable and that they reach all these women. It is vital to boost the capacity of these local, informal groups of women with disabilities, which are crucial in identifying and supporting women and girls with disabilities who are victims of violence in the community setting.

  7. Ensure access to sexual and reproductive health services, including prenatal and postnatal healthcare for women with disabilities. It is vital to offer, in partnership with specialist NGOs, accurate and verified information to pregnant women with disabilities, their partners and families, so that they may take responsible decisions regarding their health and that of the their children about delivery and birth during this period of coronavirus, as well as on their right to give their free and informed consent to any birth-related surgical procedure, such as a caesarean section or tubal ligation.

  8. Adopt measures to provide direct compensation to informal women workers with disabilities, including healthcare staff, domestic staff, migrants and those in other sectors most affected by the pandemic, so they may continue generating income and a livelihood. It is important for the disability movement to specifically identify single mothers with disabilities and parental responsibilities so that they can be given priority access to economic support, food, housing and other types of support.

  9. Foster policies enabling us to recognise, reduce and redistribute the unpaid work inside homes for healthcare reasons and to look after persons with disabilities, work mostly carried out by women. Organisations in the disability movement should set up free hotlines offering psychological support to these women who are often the mothers.

  10. Ensure services in response to violence against women and girls with disabilities stay available or introduce them where they do not currently exist. Develop new, inclusive and accessible methods of service delivery in the current context and increase support for specialist organisations of women with disabilities to be able to provide local and regional support services.

We, on the EDF Women’s Committee; are here for you to work for women and girls with disabilities in Europe. Together we will beat this! For you, for me and for all of us!

Warmest regards,

Ana Peláez Narváez EDF Vice-President

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