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Sexual and reproductive health rights of women with disabilities: Discrimination running high

Sexual and reproductive health rights of women with disabilities: Discrimination running high

Only nine EU countries criminalise forced sterilisation as a distinct offence, while 13 allow it to be performed on persons with disabilities – and in three of those countries that includes minors. When it comes to the sexual and reproductive health rights of women with disabilities, the EU is far from being a union of equality, an EESC hearing revealed

The sexual and reproductive health rights of women and girls with disabilities still remain a taboo both within the EU and globally. Deprived of accessible information and services and denied the right to take decisions about their own bodies, these women still face abject discrimination on many counts, concluded the panellists at a hearing held in Brussels by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) on 8 July.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and the Istanbul Convention, both ratified by the EU, clearly state that persons with disabilities should enjoy the same sexual rights and retain their fertility on an equal basis with others. However, the gap between the legislation and people’s lived experience is enormous.

Moreover, while speakers at the hearing welcomed the much-anticipated EU Directive on combating violence against women and domestic violence as a step in the right direction, they also described it as a missed opportunity, as it fails to criminalise rape and to ban forced sterilisation, which is illegal under the CRPD and the Istanbul Convention. 

The hearing on Ensuring sexual and reproductive health rights for women with disabilities brought together EESC members, representatives from the European institutions and leading activists from disability and women’s organisations.

‘The legislative framework adopted by the EU is a way forward but there is a need to strengthen the rules. We emphasise that there are forms of violence not yet covered by the legislation, such as sexual harassment and forced sterilisation, which needs to be criminalised, as it is still a practice in 13 Member States’, said EESC member Dovilė Juodkaitė, co-rapporteur for the EESC’s opinion on Violence against women as a human rights issue: state of play of measures across the EU.

In the opinion, the EESC will stress that women with disabilities are several times more likely to experience violence, with women having a psychosocial or intellectual disability or mental health problems most at risk.

The team leader of ‘Stop violence against women’ in the European Commission, Maria Rosa Mollica, said that, under the new EU Directive, Member States would be required to provide specific support for women with disabilities who are victims of violence, to take into account their specific circumstances when assessing their protection needs, and to take targeted preventive measures in formats accessible to people with disabilities.

Virginia Ossana of Women Enabled International (WEI) said that women with disabilities across the world regularly experienced serious violations of their bodily autonomy: they are subjected to forced or coerced sterilisation, contraception, and abortion at higher rates than women without disabilities.

‘Decisions about these procedures are often made by substitute decision-makers like parents, guardians, or other actors without the informed consent of the individual. This terrible violation is often permitted by law,’ said Ms Ossana.

‘It is quite astonishing to see that forced abortions and sterilisations are still not listed as a specific crime. It is disappointing that the EU Directive has turned a blind eye to that’, said Ana Peláez Narváez, chair of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Secretary-General of the European Disability Forum (EDF) and Executive Vice-President of the CERMI Women’s Foundation.

‘Decisions about our own bodies are personal and private; there should be no interference on the part of state actors’, stated Ms Peláez Narváez. ‘There should be no decisions over the sexual and reproductive rights of women with disabilities without their own clear, free and informed consent. Countries should make sure that these women are educated and have sufficient information on their rights.’

‘The EU has shamefully failed to ban forced sterilisation’, said Sara Rocha, activist and board member of the European Council of Autistic People (EUCAP), and vice-chair of EDF’s Women’s Committee.

‘The ableist and paternalistic idea that women with disabilities are unable to take decisions about their bodies or to become mothers, the normalisation of violence against us disguised as “care” and the view of our bodies as to be cared for, instead of potential carers, has led to the EU’s complicity in eugenic practices and human rights violations”, said Ms Rocha.

Sterilisation is performed on the pretext of menstrual management, protection against sexual abuse, contraception or facilitation of care. It is sometimes a requirement for these women to be admitted to institutions providing care. Data on these cases remain scant.

These women are often denied appropriate sexual and reproductive care or IVF and fertility treatments, and receive little support for motherhood. Moreover, women’s health clinics are often poorly equipped to care for women with disabilities and information about sexual and reproductive health rights is rarely provided in accessible formats.

Charlotte Olhausen of the European Union of the Deaf (EUD) gave the example of deaf women facing systemic marginalisation and attitudinal and communication barriers when accessing their sexual and reproductive rights. There is a medical approach to family planning, with deafness often viewed in a negative light by medical professionals. She highlighted instances of deaf people being denied IVF treatment purely on the grounds of their disability or being forced to abort with the excuse that their child may be deaf.

Despite the widespread and systemic violation of the rights of these women and girls, their sexual and reproductive health rights are rarely talked about, as their sexuality is surrounded by stigma, with prejudice running high.

‘No one is putting this topic on the table apart from disability NGOs’, said Katrin Langensiepen, Member of the European Parliament. ‘We need allies, both outside and inside the European Parliament and the European Commission. Please be on our side.’

‘We could talk about so many barriers in this field, so much stigma when it comes to women with disabilities’, concluded Sif Holst, president of the EESC’s Ad Hoc Group on Equality. ‘When it comes to our access to sexual and reproductive health rights, we are far from being a union of equality, and we need action’.

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