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12 June 2018

European Development Days: Women with Disabilities on the Rise

At the European Development Days (EDD), Light for the World was actively involved in raising the voices and visibility of women with disabilities. Together with CONCORD, we brought gender rights and disability activist Nidhi Goyal – also India’s first-ever blind stand-up comedian – to one of the main EDD panels, and organised a discussion around the experiences of women with disabilities from low and middle-income countries. Our team members from the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Germany and Cambodia connected with international partners from civil society, with government officials, and the media to raise awareness of the need of gender-sensitive and disability-inclusive development.

The importance of working in partnerships and networks

Organised by the European Commission, the European Development Days are one of Europe’s biggest development conferences and a major get-together of over 8.000 civil society and government representatives, and members of the international development community in Brussels. Professionals, decision- and policy makers from all over the world gather together for two days to discuss, exchange and strengthen partnerships and collaboration. Light for the World believes in working in networks and in building sustainable partnerships in order to work towards a more inclusive society. Inclusion concerns us all – this is why we use the EDD and other platforms to share lessons learned from our own projects, to strengthen our partnerships, and to urge others to make disability inclusion a reality in their work. Connecting with this year’s EDD theme – “Women and girls at the forefront of sustainable development” – we advocated for the inclusion of women and girls with disabilities in the women’s rights movement.

Women with disabilities as change makers

For the first time ever, a woman with a disability participated in one of the official panels of the European Development Days. The Indian disability and gender activist, Nidhi Goyal, was invited to represent and speak on behalf of civil society at the official closing session which is one of the main events at the EDD, being followed by the majority of EDD participants.

In her speech, Nidhi Goyal urged development actors, government officials and all members of society to consider intersectionality and heterogeneity much more when it comes to gender issues and inclusion. She highlighted how everyone needs to question power structures and internalised hierarchies in order to work towards a more inclusive society and develop true partnerships. While citing the #metoo movement as an example of the empowerment of a lot of women, she also pointed to the limits of inclusion of this movement and many others which are often not reflective of a lot of women, including women with disabilities. Where is the diversity of voices within these movements, are we hearing enough of indigenous women, Nidhi asked. These questions can bring us to query hierarchies and power structures. In order to expose and change them, we need to include these women intentionally and consciously. Only then can true inclusion become a reality for all.

Nidhi Goyal speaks at the EDD closing panel about the voices of women

Light for the World, together with the EU flagship initiative on the inclusion of people with disabilities, Bridging the Gap, and EU-SPS, organised an engaging session, addressing the experiences of women with disabilities from low and middle-income countries. In a vibrant debate, “Women on the Rise – No one left behind” covered issues of social protection and self-employment, and showcased learnings of how to empower women with disabilities to take the lead.

At this session, our colleague Sreynak Hun presented Light for the World’s leadership programme for women with disabilities in Cambodia. This unique project aims at empowering women with disabilities in Cambodia to raise their voices and become agents of change through building their skills and raising their self-confidence. As a former participant of the project and as one of the few Cambodian female self-advocates, Sreynak has gone on to become the Programme Liaison Officer in charge of coordinating the project. She highlighted that women with disabilities need to be empowered to raise their voices and address the issues their facing in their communities in terms of lack access to education, health care services, employment opportunities, communication, participation, and involvement in decision making. For instance, most of the persons with disabilities living under the poverty line due to the social exclusion and because they found so much difficulties to access to education since most of the schools from primary levels up to university levels are inaccessible. Therefore, this exactly leads to unemployment for PwDs since they can’t access to education and can’t get work experiences.  As part of the Women with Disabilities Leadership programme, Sreynak and her colleagues work with women to train their skills, offer them small grants which reached to hundreds of women with  disabilities in their communities and build their self-confidence and knowledge of their rights, empowered to decide and set up their own projects based on the needs of persons with disabilities in communities, setting up their own Monitoring and Evaluation Structure (demonstrate their accountability in managing and implementing their projects) in order to support them in raising their voices.

Improving accessibility at the EDD and understanding the needs of persons with disabilities

While accessibility was to a certain extent taken into account in the organisation of the EDDs, there was a lot of room for improvement: from badly indicated ramps far away inaccessible main entrances, the ubiquitous Brussels cobblestone, or meeting rooms with the two obligatory steps at the door, amongst others. Not to lose an opportunity, many disability and mainstream development organisations got together and will address a letter to the European Commission, highlighting the accessibility issues at the EDDs. Hopefully, this should encourage the organisers of the next EDDs to consult persons with disabilities in the design of their accessibility features.


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