Women with Disabilities: Strengthening Roles and Responsibilities in Peacebuilding and Politics

On March 23, 2016, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and the Office of Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) hosted “Women with Disabilities: Strengthening Roles and Responsibilities in Peacebuilding and Politics,” the fifth installment of the “Women, Peace and Security” Capitol Hill breakfast briefing series.

Bill Sweeney, IFES President and CEO, opened the event by highlighting IFES’ programming to address the political barriers faced by women with disabilities (e.g., through tools like ElectionAccess.org), stating, “the inclusion of women with disabilities improves the peacebuilding and political frameworks that shape societies” and “goes to the core of what IFES does.” Jessica Huber, IFES Senior Gender Specialist, then introduced the panel, which was comprised of Stephanie Ortoleva, Esq., Founder and President of Women Enabled International; Virginia Atkinson, IFES Program Manager for Global Access and Inclusion; and Judith E. Heumann, Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State.

Reflecting on the work of Congresswoman Jackson Lee and IFES, Ortoleva shared her long-held admiration for the Congresswoman and how one of her first projects at the U.S. Department of State was an IFES project in Egypt and Morocco. She noted that one-fifth of the world’s women have disabilities, which are augmented in both number and intensity by the ravages of war. She then provided an overview of international laws focused on women’s empowerment, such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, and subsequent resolutions, and their references (or lack thereof) to women and girls with disabilities. When they were mentioned, she often found that they were framed in the context of protection rather than as equal rights holders. The latter view is especially important to Ortoleva, as “women with disabilities are the forgotten peace makers.”

Having recently returned from a trip to Ukraine, Atkinson then considered the on-the-ground realities for women with disabilities. She highlighted three factors that marginalize many women: their gender, one or more disabilities, and isolation in rural communities. In addition to Ukraine, she also considered Haiti, Myanmar and Libya, where IFES has worked to include women with disabilities as official election observers, in leadership trainings and in the development of national disability rights action plans. Across the world, she has found the general public to be the biggest barrier to the political participation of women with disabilities. For example, one of the official Dominican election observers trained by IFES, who happens to be Deaf, was prevented from casting a ballot by her own family out of concern for her safety and an unwillingness to accompany her to the polling station early in the morning. However, Atkinson has found that, once included in the political process, “women with disabilities [are] often the most active and engaged.”

According to Heumann, the ability of such individuals to organize has been bolstered by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and UNSCR 1325. One of the remaining obstacles in the U.S. has been that government funding often does not hold entities responsible for ensuring that projects are inclusive. Additionally, she has found that many “people often don’t understand what they have to do and will prioritize other things,” leaving it to citizens to hold themselves and their public officials accountable. Heumann noted that, on a positive note, the U.S. has much stronger domestic laws than many other countries, providing the opportunity to speak about them on the international stage and highlight how they are used by civil society groups.

Congresswoman Jackson Lee joined the panelists and considered the sheer number of women with disabilities in the U.S., as well as their relationship to poverty, medical access, and the job market. She expressed admiration for her colleague Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth (IL-8), a service-disabled Iraq War veteran whom she considers “a powerful role model.” Congresswoman Jackson Lee called on the audience “to be change makers, to empower and enable women,” and pledged to bring the role of women with disabilities in peacebuilding and politics to the attention of her colleagues in Congress.

The event concluded with audience questions. A staff member from the International Republican Institute, one of IFES’ Consortium for Elections and Political Processes Strengthening partners, asked if the panelists had advice on how to bring persons with disabilities to the table in their work in the Western Sahara. Ortoleva pointed to Women Enabled International’s newly developed Survey and Mapping Project, which maps the global field of advocates for the rights of women and girls with disabilities. Heumann similarly noted the importance of finding and working with organizations that already operate in a given country or region. In closing the event, Huber thanked Congresswoman Jackson Lee and the panelists, who “inspire her and the audience through the work they do.”

To view a photo gallery of the event, please click here.

IFES’ next “Women, Peace and Security” briefing on “Preventing and Responding to Violence Against Women in Conflict” will be held on Thursday, May 19, 2016. To RSVP, please contact Liz Sidell at esidell@ifes.org.