Published on Voices

Reaching women with disabilities for truly inclusive and sustainable development

Reaching populations with disabilities requires going the proverbial ?last mile? for a truly sustainable and inclusive development process. Reaching populations with disabilities requires going the proverbial “last mile” for a truly sustainable and inclusive development process.

This blog is published in memory of Judith (Judy) Heumann, a tireless lifelong civil rights advocate who served as the World Bank’s first Adviser on Disability and Development from 2002-2006, and who passed away on March 4, 2023. Judy was instrumental in shaping the Bank’s disability inclusion agenda.

Beata Nyirahabinshuti, a school teacher in Kigali, knows what it feels like to be excluded. A woman with visual impairment, she struggled to thrive at work due to a lack of accommodation for her disability. Until all that changed. The Inclusive Education Initiative (IEI) and the Rwanda Basic Education Board (REB) provided training for Beata and twenty-one other visually impaired teachers, as well as their headteachers, to facilitate their teaching in mainstream schools. Beata’s school responded by assigning her to an accessible classroom with a teaching assistant, and equipping her with braille paper and a laptop with accessible software. Beata now feels empowered to succeed in the classroom and to follow her passion to educate children.

Beata is far from alone. One in five women—20 percent of the female population—has a disability. While women with disabilities experience the same obstacles as nondisabled women, they also encounter additional types of discrimination and environmental barriers that prevent their socio-economic participation.  This International Women’s Day, as we celebrate women in all their diversity worldwide, their accomplishments, and their ambitions, we must remain focused on overcoming the barriers women, particularly those at the margins of society, still face to participate in society freely and equally. A new toolkit, “Including Women and Girls with Disabilities in World Bank Group Operations,” will support our efforts to better deliver on our commitments to gender equality and inclusion of persons with disabilities.

A lack of practical knowledge around inclusion of women with disabilities, as well as data gaps are factors that impede effective interventions. Women with disabilities are largely absent from official statistics and surveys: data on persons with disabilities is rarely disaggregated by gender, and data on gender rarely specifies disabilities.  The toolkit identifies key issues like this to examine through the lens of gender and disability when designing projects and other interventions – notably physical and digital accessibility, enabling laws and policies, data availability, awareness, affordability, acceptability, and safety.

Meaningful participation of women with disabilities is critical to overcoming their exclusion.  Leadership structures in the disability movement often reflect patriarchal norms that are present across many social strata, and women with disabilities are much less likely to occupy leadership roles than men with disabilities. To overcome resulting gender gaps, the toolkit helps project implementers to look at the intersecting issues of both gender and disability inclusion throughout the project cycle. Solutions to circumvent barriers include creating safe spaces for women with disabilities, allowing flexible times for meetings, and having women facilitators. Development projects can only be truly inclusive when the voices of women with disabilities are heard.

Reaching populations with disabilities requires going the proverbial “last mile” for a truly sustainable and inclusive development process.  Such effort leads to shifts in behavior that enrich people’s daily lives and change how disabilities are perceived. For example, Beta has even noticed that her school now communicates in a more accessible manner. “Before, they would post a picture on the group WhatsApp without descriptions," she said. "But now, they add descriptions. The headteacher has even started sharing examples of how to be disability-inclusive during the assembly.” This International Women's Day, let's recommit to ensure equal opportunities for all.


Louise Cord

Global Director for Social Sustainability and Inclusion, World Bank

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