Beyond disasters: How UNDP is addressing inequality and empowering women with disabilities for a resilient future

Source(s): United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
Social inclusion of the blind and people with visual impairment
UN Women Europe and Central Asia/Rena Effendi/flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED)

On the 2023 International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) aims to increase awareness and promote action against the profound inequality brought by disasters. The focus is on fighting inequality to pave the way for a more resilient future.

“When something happens to a woman with a disability, such as physical or sexual violence, society often makes fun of it and fails to take it seriously,” explains Ms. Nguyen, a UNDP Vietnam worker with a disability. “They tend to blame the woman as if she's a foolish lady who has done something wrong, which further discourages women from speaking out.” These inequalities between women with disabilities and their communities are regrettably common and persist not only in daily life but also in the context of disasters.

Women with disabilities are often excluded from early warning, relief, or emergency response programs due to inaccessible information and infrastructure. Unfortunately, governments often overlook their inclusion in climate change and disaster management initiatives, despite women's valuable contributions as leaders in fostering inclusive responses. 

“Women uplift their families and communities in the aftermath of droughts, floods, and hurricanes. They are the pillars that restore stability once again,” - Sima Sami Bahous, Executive Director of UN Women

National disaster risk reduction plans commonly overlook the diversity of disability, leading to the misconception that persons with disabilities are a homogenous group with identical needs. Limited understanding of how disability interacts with other identity factors, including gender, age, socio-economic status, education, sexual orientation and race results in unequal distribution of risk, especially for women with disabilities.

Women and girls with disabilities are particularly at risk of discrimination, exploitation and violence, including gender-based violence, and often face difficulties as Ms. Nguyen describes. Exclusion from social networks, coupled with discrimination and stigma, amplifies the vulnerability of individuals with disabilities to violence, abuse, and exploitation. These factors hinder their access to essential services and impede their ability to attain economic empowerment and security, which are crucial for building resilience in the face of disasters. Disasters intensify inequalities, as also seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, which deepened inequalities and heightened the risk of violence against women with disabilities.

“Many disability groups, particularly women, are often left behind and underrepresented,” - Ms. Nguyen

Disasters’ gendered inequality: Where inequalities run wild

Disasters pose heightened risks for women with disabilities, including increased vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence, barriers in accessing information on sexual and reproductive health services, and challenges in managing menstrual hygiene. Even before disasters strike, women and girls with disabilities encounter greater difficulties in accessing these essential services, often due to harmful misconceptions surrounding their reproductive capacity. Reducing the inequality faced by women with disabilities prior to disasters is crucial, as advancing gender equality is “one of the vital solutions for strengthening our resilience to disaster and climate change”, according to Sarah Hendricks, the Director of the Policy, Program, and Intergovernmental Division at UN Women.

Empowerment and equality

UNDP Vietnam is actively addressing the inequality faced by women with disabilities through empowerment and awareness-raising initiatives. Training sessions on gender-based violence and gender equality were conducted by UNDP, providing both men and women with valuable information on legal instruments such the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Ms. Huong, the Head of the Hanoi Club of Women with Disabilities, shared her experience, stating, “With the help of gender training and support from UNDP, I gained confidence and knowledge about gender-based violence.” In addition to training sessions, UNDP organized art initiatives, including fashion shows, artistic performances, and silent dramas, allowing women with communication difficulties to share their personal stories of mistreatment and harassment experienced while travelling on public transport.

Most of the public do not take harassment incidents seriously, often siding with men and blaming women, “we are unfairly blamed due to our supposed loneliness or our choice of clothing,” shared Ms. Trang, a woman with mobility difficulties. This prevailing culture has discouraged many women with disabilities from reporting misconduct, leaving them disempowered. Ms. Huong further explained, “Women with disabilities in my club often feel insecure about their appearance, which can lead to tolerating inappropriate behavior from men.” Recognizing the importance of going beyond training sessions, empowering these women to become confident agents of change became a priority. Ms. Huong exemplified this by stating, “I participated in a fashion show to convey the message that self-love and empowerment can empower women to report GBV.” The impact of these artistic initiatives has endured, as stated by Ms. Trang: “Even after over five months, the event's messages remain deeply ingrained in my memory.”

Projects like these play a vital role, not only in raising awareness among women with disabilities about gender-based violence and self-protection strategies but also in empowering them to become confident agents of change, encouraging them to break the silence surrounding GBV and other forms of harassment. By reducing inequalities, these projects enhance the resilience of women with disabilities, equipping them with the necessary tools to safeguard themselves during times of disaster. Empowering women entails enabling them to recognize their own agency and regain control over their lives. 

To address the inequalities faced by women and girls with disabilities before, during and after disasters, it is essential to unite gender-responsive and disability-inclusive budgeting within disaster risk reduction efforts. The efforts undertaken by UNDP Vietnam serve as an important milestone in promoting inclusivity and social justice, especially for women with disabilities. It is essential to foster greater collaboration among stakeholders, building bridges, fostering trust, and enhancing inclusion to effectively reduce inequalities. By empowering the most at-risk groups, their confidence can be strengthened, enabling them to assert their rights and become leaders in advocating for inclusive disaster risk reduction. Together, we can combat inequality and shape a more resilient future. 

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