A Commitment to Refugees with Disabilities

Monday, 17 June 2019 15:22 GMT

Refugee women with disabilities participate in a workshop in Kutupalong Camp, Cox's Bazar

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Last week, the Women's Refugee Commission (WRC) was honored to accept InterAction’s 2019 Disability Inclusion Award. This recognition by our peers is especially meaningful, given our longstanding commitment to promoting disability inclusion in humanitarian response.

In 2007, WRC conducted the first-ever global research into the situation of refugees with disabilities. What we discovered was appalling. There were no plans in place to ensure people with disabilities could access basic protections and services. Children with disabilities were not in school. Women with disabilities were unable to access reproductive health care. Gender-based violence and livelihoods programs did not include them. Simply put, their needs – and their capacities – were entirely overlooked.

So, WRC got to work with partners, including refugees with disabilities and their families, to develop solutions.

We began by advocating for UNHCR’s Executive Committee to adopt a Conclusion on Refugees with Disabilities in 2010 that has informed subsequent policy development and field practice.

We produced practical tools and guidance on disability inclusion for humanitarian workers

And now, WRC is proud to be a member of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Task Team that is developing global guidelines to strengthen the inclusion and participation of persons with disabilities in humanitarian action. These guidelines will be an important step toward gender equality for women and girls with disabilities and will enhance their protection and empowerment while increasing accountability.

We recognize that the humanitarian community has made progress. But we also recognize that as a community, we face difficulty in translating policies and guidance into practical measures in the field. If we are to succeed in closing the gap between pledges and practice, we need to continue to challenge assumptions and push limits.

For example, we know that women and girls with disabilities face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination related to their age, disability, and refugee status. Yet, people with disabilities continue to be lumped together as a “vulnerable” category needing special assistance, without consideration of their gender, diversity, and differential needs. The result? Programs too often fail to reach those most in need of aid. And too few programs have a gender-responsive approach.

Women and girls with disabilities in humanitarian crises are not victims, they are actors. But they remain largely excluded from decision-making processes that affect their lives. Too few programs leverage their capacity to support their own empowerment and protection. We need to do a better job at recognizing and supporting their abilities, their strengths, and their experiences.

That’s why we are partnering with local organizations representing women with disabilities, such as the National Union of Women with Disabilities in Uganda, to strengthen their leadership and voice in humanitarian action at national, regional, and global levels.

Local organizations are truly the experts, and we need to encourage more organizations to partner and work with them on the ground. And importantly, we need to ensure they are adequately funded to do this work.

Strengthening the role of organizations of persons with disabilities, particularly those led by women, aligns well with the localization of aid agenda and Grand Bargain commitments that imply a “shifting of power.” It represents a real chance to strengthen accountability for disability inclusion across the system, which is so central to connecting policy and programmatic responses.

As Nujeen Mustafa, a refugee from Syria and a disability rights advocate, put it when she spoke before the UN Security Council in April: “You need to address the needs of people with disabilities, particularly women. This is not a favor. This is not charity. This is our right.”

We all need to do a better job for—and with—refugee women and girls with disabilities. In accepting the Disability Inclusion Award today, WRC commits to doing just that.