Women with disabilities attend the ICPD Beyond 2014 Conference

The ICPD Beyond 2014 Conference on Human Rights and Sexual and Reproductive Rights took place in The Netherlands from 7 – 10 July 2013.

As part of the UN mandated 20-year review of the 1994 ICPD Programme of Action, the conference brought together over 300 representatives from governments, civil society organizations and UN agencies, as well as experts and human rights defenders to identify key achievements, barriers and emerging challenges to delivering the goals of ICPD.  Hosted by the Government of The Netherlands in partnership with the United Nations Population Fund and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the conference focused on the nexus between human rights, equality, accountability and population and development, with a focus on gender, discrimination, empowerment and sexual and reproductive health and rights.   Conference sessions were structured around themes including: women’s autonomy and reproductive rights, sexual health and well-being and human rights and gender-based discrimination and violence.

Carolyn Frohmader, the Executive Director of Women With Disabilities Australia, served as a member of the Reference Group charged with planning the Conference and as a result of her fierce advocacy, Carolyn broke ground for women with disabilities to participate in this significant invitation-only human rights conference.  Three women with disabilities were invited to the conference and brought visibility and voice to the human rights violations women and girls with disabilities face around the world: Myra Kovary, representing the International Network of Women With Disabilities, Therese Sands, representing Women With Disabilities Australia, and Stephanie Ortoleva, representing Women Enabled, Inc.  All three are members of the International Network of Women with Disabilities.

The main themes of the conference were inequality and accountability.  The slogan of the conference was “all different, all human, all equal.”  There was a strong focus on not leaving anyone behind.  One would have thought that women with disabilities (approximately 20% of the world’s women and girls) would have been a priority.  Women with disabilities had been mentioned in the original opening documents, but Carolyn had to fight for us to get a real place at the table.  She demanded more attention to women with disabilities in the background paper and, on very short notice, Carolyn and Stephanie drafted a paper on the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls with disabilities’ that is posted prominently on the conference website as a reference document at http://humanrights.icpdbeyond2014.org/issues.

At the conference, we raised many issues regarding sexual and reproductive health rights, violence against women with disabilities, and our lack of autonomy.  Stephanie was invited to serve as a Discussant for the break-out session discussion on discrimination and violence against women where she highlighted women and girls with disabilities and the need for government accountability and due diligence to end these violations.  Stephanie also made a key intervention on women with disabilities during the main plenary on Monday, 8 July, regarding the need for greater inclusion of women with disabilities in the discussions.  Therese co-led a round table Human Rights Café conversation with Geetanjali Misra, CREA, on sexual and reproductive health rights of people with disabilities which brought greater focus to these issues.

Myra played a very active role lobbying behind the scenes.  She talked with with the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, the Executive Director of the UN Population Fund, the facilitator of the session on emerging issues that had not been adequately addressed in the conference, several speakers, some of whom mentioned disability but often used the words “the disabled” instead of persons or women with disabilities, and other conference participants to raise awareness of the concerns of women and girls with disabilities.  We all made interventions during the breakout session discussions.  We also posted cards on the bulletin boards where we added further thoughts to those discussions.

Our presence brought human faces with clear voices, demanding equality for women with disabilities, the right to full sexual and reproductive health rights, freedom from gender-based violence, and the right to make our own decisions.  We raised issues of forced sterilization, forced abortion, forced contraception, forced psychiatric interventions, rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence and the urgent need for accessible and affordable sexual and reproductive health care, information and education, and we proposed solutions to make the conference more accessible and inclusive.

The work was difficult.  We still have a long way to go but we definitely made a difference.  It is our hope that women with disabilities will no longer be “left behind” and that the ICPD agenda will move us into a new era where all women and girls, including all women and girls with all disabilities, can truly claim our human rights.

Again, Carolyn Frohmader deserves our deep appreciation.  The fact that three women with disabilities were at the conference to advocate for our rights and work as a team made our presence stronger.

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