Let’s take a bigger leap for women with disabilities and economic empowerment

Hannah Loryman Gender, Her Series, Women's Economic Empowerment

In this latest addition to her our Her Series, we look at the barriers women with disabilities face. Hannah Loryman from CBM sheds light on just some of them. 

The High-level panel’s aim to put Women’s Economic Empowerment at the top of the International Agenda is hugely positive. As the Secretary General put it, the Sustainable Development Goals will only be achieved with ‘a quantum leap in women’s economic empowerment.’

For women with disabilities, who make up around 20% of women, an even bigger leap is needed.

Double discrimination

Girls and women with disabilities are often amongst the poorest and most marginalised in any society. They are the least likely to get an education, be employed or influence the decisions that affect their lives. If they work, they are more likely to work informally or in low-paid precarious jobs with poor conditions. Many also face significant constraints to owning assets or getting credit.

Much of this will sound familiar to those working on gender. This is because many barriers that women with disabilities face are the same as those that affect their non-disabled peers. Being a woman with a disability often means these challenges are amplified. They often have to fight against discrimination on the basis of both gender and disability. Research by CBM in Cambodia found that women with disabilities are over 4x more likely to have their activities and whereabouts restricted by their partners than other women. These different identities intersect and create new more complex forms of discrimination and disadvantage.

Women may be unable to open a bank account because a male family member must give their permission while campaigning may lead to this restriction being lifted and women are now allowed to open bank accounts.  But a woman with a visual impairment is still unable to open a bank account because information is not available in a format she can access. A woman with a hearing impairment is not allowed to open a bank account because her parents worry about her travelling to the bank as she often faces abuse from the community.

A caution

A huge barrier to the economic empowerment of women with disabilities is the perception that they are incapable of working. This misconception leads to many women being excluded from the labour force and perpetuates stigma and discrimination which can lead to isolation, a lack of voice, and abuse.

While many women with disabilities are able to work if the right barriers are removed and the right conditions put in place, there are some people who will never be able to generate their own income. We need to be careful about attributing the worth of an individual to the economic contribution they can make. This does not mean that they should be left out of the agenda – work is not the only method of economic empowerment. Interventions such as comprehensive social protection floors are key to ensuring economic empowerment for all women, regardless of their ability to work.

Taking a twin-track approach

We need to make sure that women with disabilities are included at all levels – from the international work of the High Level Panel, in national policies and at the community level. There needs to be a better understanding of the physical, attitudinal and structural barriers that they face and better disaggregated data so that we know who is included and excluded.

Women with disabilities need to be included in mainstream programmes and policies, and have access to disability specific support and programmes where necessary.  This means, for example, ensuring that laws and policies on employment do not exclude people with disabilities and that women are included in self-help groups and peer savings programmes. It also means providing appropriate skills training to women with disabilities who have been excluded from education, ensuring that they have the right equipment or assistive devices and taking into account the skills and abilities of an individual, rather than making assumptions based on their impairment.

An agenda for all women

If we want this agenda to be transformative, then we need to ensure that we are reaching all women. The Sustainable Development Goals give us an opportunity move away from taking an ‘easy win’ approach and instead focus on reaching the furthest behind first. To do this we need to recognise the diversity of experiences women face – and the different routes to economic empowerment that they need to take. Otherwise, the agenda risks leaving the women who have the most to gain behind.


Ieuan Ferrer