05/14/2013 12:54 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2013

Opening Opportunities to Differently-Abled Women and Girls

Discrimination against women is a grave concern embedded in the roots of my society in India and social systems across the globe since antiquity. I have learned and seen firsthand that within the larger framework of gender inequality, layers of discrimination exist which are far more starkly visible in India. The Social Institutions Gender Index (SIGI) which compares factors such as preferential treatment of sons over daughters, violence against women, and restrictions on property rights ranks India as 56th out of 86 countries for gender equality, lower than other emerging markets like Brazil, China, Indonesia and South Africa. It is further evidence that of India's 1.2 billion citizens, women suffer disproportionately.

In this increasingly tense climate following the incidents of rape and violence against women in India, I would like to bring to light the discrimination faced by women with disabilities. Indeed, differently-abled women are a doubly discriminated category in India: for being women and having a physical or mental impairment. A small 2004 survey in Orissa, India, found that virtually all of the women and girls with disabilities were beaten at home, 25 percent of women with intellectual disabilities had been raped, and 6 percent of women with disabilities had been forcibly sterilized.

As these numbers have escalated, the critical concern lies with the 'burden of Intelligibility,' with respect to woman's testimony in a rape trial. She is systematically denied the right to equality, discouraged from lodging her complaint of sexual abuse, combined with experiencing a discriminatory environment of the courtroom that is patriarchal in nature, all of which devalues and disregards her testimony. Through a combination of flawed evidentiary, doctrinal and ideological practices inscribed in law, postponed medical examination, and the judicial system's failure to provide interpreters and translators in order to record the victim's testimony, the verdict often overlooks her statement, deeming it invalid.

It is therefore important to recognize the legal and general social provisions that are being denied to differently-abled women and young girls. This initiative will challenge the existing justification accorded to their differential treatment.

In this context, I recall my own personal experiences interning at the National Association for the Blind -- in New Delhi, where I saw firsthand the incredible obstacles women and girls with disabilities face. It was there that I met Alia,* who was in her early teenage years when I got an opportunity to assist her in her academic preparations. She was enthusiastic, cheerful, and displayed a high level of maturity for her age. She was extremely determined and diligent towards her schoolwork, and set high goals for herself, in the hopes of making her parents and brother proud. Though some of the memories are faint, I will never forget the significance of what she uttered to me one day, probably in passing -- "All we want is a sense of dignity. We do not feel handicapped until we are made to feel that way".

Years later, the comment still lingers in my memory and relates to another girl I worked with recently, who I will call Asha*. Despite incidents of partial blindness that could not be treated, she recognized the hurdles she faced and fought against them with patience and hard work of a great intensity, with the knowledge that opportunities were less available for women with disabilities. Despite the obstacles, Asha's hard work and diligence paid off because she became one of the top scorers in her class, and was one of a successful few candidates to acquire a government job.

Such experiences have convinced me to not sympathize with these young girls, rather critique the dominant cultural conception of 'disability' as a deviation from 'bodily perfection,' thus hindering their opportunities to lead a life of dignity:

(a) The Hindu Caste system considers disability a form of punishment or retribution that an individual receives for committing evil deeds in a previous life.

(b) Popular discourses associate disability with an inherent sense of helplessness, assuming that the individual is always in need of assistance.

These socially approved prejudices are reflected in the fact that not even 1 percent of the disabled women get to take part in decision-making and policy-making platform in the public sphere, reducing their potential to effect or alter the discourse in the larger social framework, reflective of their restricted participation. "They are often denied the exposure to interact with others and gain skills to prove their skills due to the discriminatory attitudes." Ironically, until recently, I was even aware about the High Court and City Civil Courts, considered symbols of justice, which were devoid of basic necessities of ramps, such that many "disabled, injured people were being carried up the stairs by their companions" (The Hindu, Wednesday 2 August 2006).

Alia and Asha are probably exceptional cases, since they were both receiving an education -- an option not available to most disabled girls. For the majority of disabled girls, their impairments become an additional reason for parents to discourage higher studies, thereby increasing the rate of school dropouts. The United Nations and other reports note that "boys with disabilities attend school more frequently than girls with disabilities," providing further evidence of the deep prejudice against girls with disabilities.

From my experience, I have been disappointed to observe separate educational opportunities for the differently-abled through the endorsement of segregated institutions for 'disabled' students and 'other' students, which fail to:

(a) Give them the adequate resources and a greater scope for interaction, simultaneously with the on-going school children, rather than separately;

(b) Facilitate an educational platform within the mainstream school structure, which should have the scope to accommodate both the differently-abled as well as other students, blurring the arbitrary distinction between them.

(c) Root out the social typecasting, that often leads individuals to inaccurately assess the capabilities and requirements of differently-abled from the very beginning. For example, I have known girls with physical impairment wanting to pursue medicine and other competitive courses but their dreams were not considered 'feasible,' and hence were suppressed time and again.

Furthermore, apart from the educational scenario, when it comes to the prospect of employment for disabled women, the situation is equally deplorable. It has been statistically found that "although a high percentage of respondents feel the need for disabled women to receive employment, less than a quarter of respondents were found to be employed." This happens despite the implementation of the 1995 Persons with Disabilities Act, which reserves three percent of all categories of jobs in the government sector for disabled persons, revealing that the lack of adequate enforcement of the law.

An additional account of this throws light on the negligible scope for employment that stands as a social discouragement; interestingly coming prior to the disability factor. A vicious cycle has developed as a result of this unemployment, which fuels economic disadvantage and financial instability and dependency, thereby reinforcing the poverty trap:

Malnutrition, mothers weakened by frequent childbirth, inadequate immunization programmes... all contribute to an incidence of disability among poor people. Further disability creates and exacerbates poverty by increasing isolation and economic strain, not just for the individual but for the family; there is little doubt that disabled people are among the poorest.
--"Patterns of Social Inequality and Exclusion," Ch-5, Indian Society. Textbook for Sociology for Class XII (NCERT).

Such internal contradictions in our system, between what 'ought' to be provided for disabled women and what is provided in reality convinces me that we must rise with them and demand justice and equality. It is with this conviction that I support the RaiseforWomen Challenge, to highlight organizations such as NAB New Delhi, and Udaan for the Disabled that are providing opportunities to the most disadvantaged women. It is essential, in my view, that we strengthen our initiatives to question gender inequality by targeting the very roots of the problem, identifying every level of oppression subjected to women, incorporating voices of the differently-abled women population and ultimately pledge to turn this 'Oppression into Opportunity.'

*Names changed to respect the sensitivity of the content shared.