Two women with disabilities explain what main difficulties women and girls with disabilities face in today’s Europe and how governments can protect their rights.
Pirkko Mahlamaki is Secretary General at the Finnish Disability Forum and member of the Board of EDF. She was also recently elected as member of the Board of European Women’s Lobby.
Lidia Best is Vice President of the European Federation of Hard of Hearing People. She is originally from Poland but she lives in the UK.
Pirkko and Lidia are both members of EDF Women’s Committee.
What are the main challenges that women and girls with disabilities face in your country?
Pirkko Mahlamaki: I am from Finland and during these times of austerity, there have been benefit cuts and increases in health costs, for example, in the prices of crucial medicines to patients. This has caused hardship especially to a large majority of women with disabilities who are not in paid employment, but who have to rely on a minimum pension for their living. In Finland, the lowest pensions and disability benefits have not increased so as to cover higher costs of living and disability related costs in particular. Further, disability services and the budget for assistance to persons with disabilities is to be cut remarkably. In education, the support to students with disabilities is reduced as well. The risk of exclusion is increasing and in many areas of life we are facing a roll-back of provisions that support inclusion in society; accessibility of built environment and residences is taken back and services to people with disabilities are reduced or the eligibility criteria to receive these services are becoming more stringent. Finally, in Finland, violence against women and gender-based violence is at a very high level, affecting particularly vulnerable women and girls with disabilities.
Lidia Best: I am a citizen of two countries: UK and Poland. In the UK, the austerity measures have made women with disabilities more vulnerable and the balance between work and persons life for women with disabilities can be harder to maintain. In Poland, women with disabilities are still marginalised. In case of domestic violence, women who are hard of hearing or deafened have difficulties to go to the court and report these incidents, because of lack of access to justice. That could be, for example, because there are no systems to support their communication such as hearing loops, speech to text support etc.
What should national governments do to protect the rights of women and girls with disabilities and promote their inclusion in society?
Pirkko Mahlamaki: Governments should protect people with minimum incomes, like in many cases women with disabilities, from further cuts in their standard of living or services and assistance which are essential for them to take active part in their community. Since today many people get the information they need online, governments should also ensure that they do not leave us out of the digital world. Governments should also be effective on the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The implementation of the Istanbul Convention requires that we have more and better services to support women who are victims of violence, including women with disabilities.
Lidia Best: Governments should have specific programmes and projects targeting at raising awareness of the rights of women with disabilities. Encouraging more women into politics is another route to increase visibility and participation. An accessible society in all aspects can increase protection and promote inclusion for all.
What should the European Union do to protect the rights of women and girls with disabilities at the European level?
Pirkko Mahlamaki: The EU needs to help Member States to ensure more and better inclusive education and employment opportunities, better implementation of human rights provisions, new tools to combat discrimination on grounds of disability. The EU should promote a real and effective implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in particular related to the involvement of women and girls with disabilities.
Lidia Best: EU has a role to play with providing a platform for organisations to raise awareness of issues faced by women with disabilities as well as providing targeted funding. Greater legal protection against forced sterilisation of women with disabilities is very much needed, as this is still happening in Member States. Access to information is crucial there.