An Overview of the Status of Women With Disabilities in Australia


Gender affects the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of their human rights. Gender refers to the social differences and relations between men and women which are learned, vary widely among societies and cultures, and change over time.

The term gender is used to analyse the roles, responsibilities, constraints, opportunities and needs of women and men in all areas and in any given social context. Gender roles are learned behaviours in a given society, community or other social group. They condition which activities, tasks and responsibilities are perceived as male or female.

Gender roles are affected by age, disability, class, race, ethnicity and religion, and by the geographical, economic and political environment [1]. Gender-based assumptions and expectations generally place women with disabilities at a disadvantage with respect to substantive enjoyment of rights, such as freedom to act and to be recognised as autonomous, fully capable adults, to participate fully in economic, social and political development, and to make decisions concerning their circumstances and conditions. Gender is one of the most important categories of social organisation [2], yet people with disabilities are often treated as asexual, genderless human beings. This view is borne out in Australian disability policies, which have consistently failed to apply a gender lens. Most have proceeded as though there are a common set of issues – and that men and women experience disability in the same way [3].

However women with disabilities and men with disabilities have different life experiences due to biological, psychological, economic, social, political and cultural attributes associated with being female and male. Patterns of disadvantage are often associated with the differences in the social position of women and men. These gendered differences are reflected in the life experiences of women with disabilities and men with disabilities. Women with disabilities face multiple discriminations and are often more disadvantaged than men with disabilities in similar circumstances. Women with disabilities are often denied equal enjoyment of their human rights, in particular by virtue of the lesser status ascribed to them by tradition and custom, or as a result of overt or covert discrimination [4]. Women with disabilities face particular disadvantages in the areas of education, work and employment, family and reproductive rights, health, violence and abuse. For example:

    • women with disabilities experience violence, particularly family violence and violence in institutions, more often than disabled men [5, 6];
    • gender-based violence, including domestic/family violence, sexual assault/rape is a cause of disability in women [7, 8];
    • women and girls with disabilities are often at greater risk than disabled men, both within and outside the home, of violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation [9];
    • women with disabilities are more vulnerable as victims of crimes from both strangers and people who are known to them, yet crimes against disabled women are often never reported to law enforcement agencies [10];
    • more women than men are classified as disabled, particularly as ageing populations mean that larger proportions of the elderly are women with disabilities [11]. Of all household types in Australia, elderly single women are at the greatest risk of persistent poverty, with more than half of elderly single women living in poverty [12];
    • women with disabilities are less likely to receive service support than disabled men [13, 14];
    • while disabled people are much more likely to live in poverty, women with disabilities are likely to be poorer than men with disabilities [15, 16];
    • women with disabilities and men with disabilities have different economic opportunities, with disabled women less likely to be in the paid workforce than disabled men. They also have lower incomes from employment than men with disabilities [17, 18, 19]. In Australia, the gender gap in pay has widened over the last four years [20]. Superannuation savings are directly linked to paid work, and current average superannuation payouts for women are less than half that received by men [21];
    • gender biases in labour markets have meant that disabled women’s productive potential is less effectively tapped than disabled men’s and that disabled women have been more concentrated than disabled men in informal, subsistence and vulnerable employment [22];
    • over the last decade, the unemployment rate for disabled women in Australia has remained virtually unchanged (8.3%) despite significant decreases in the unemployment rates for disabled men [23];
    • employment of women with disabilities in the Australian public sector shows an employment rate of approximately 2.8%, compared to that of men with disabilities of 3.9% [24];
    • women with disabilities are more likely to be sole parents, to be living on their own, or in their parental family than disabled men [25];
    • women with disabilities, with less financial resources at their disposal than disabled men, are particularly vulnerable to living in insecure or inadequate housing [26];
    • women with disabilities and their children are more likely than disabled men, to be affected by the lack of affordable housing, due to the major gap in overall economic security across the life-cycle, and to their experience of gender-based violence which leads to housing vulnerability, including homelessness [27];
    • women who become disabled after marriage are at higher risk of divorce than disabled men and often experience difficulty maintaining custody of their children [28];
    • women with disabilities who are parents, or who seek to become parents, face barriers in accessing adequate health care and other services for both themselves and their child/ren [29];
    • women with disabilities are more likely than disabled men, to face medical interventions to control their fertility [30, 31, 32];
    • women with disabilities experience more extreme social categorisation than disabled men, being more likely to be seen either as hypersexual and uncontrollable, or de-sexualised and inert [33];
    • media images contribute to the presumptions that the bodies of women with disabilities are unattractive, asexual and outside the societal ascribed norms of ‘beauty'[34];
    • women with disabilities have significantly lower levels of participation in voter registration and election, in party politics and thus, in governance and decision making at all levels compared to men with disabilities [35];
    • women with disabilities like other women, share the burden of responsibility for unpaid work in the private and social spheres, including for example, cooking, cleaning, caring for children and relatives. Women in Australia spend almost three times as many hours per week looking after children as men; and do two thirds of the unpaid caring and domestic work in Australian households [36];
    • women with disability from ethnic or indigenous communities are more likely to have to contend with forces that exclude them on the basis of gender as well as disability, culture and heritage [37];
    • women with disabilities are more exposed to practices which qualify as torture or inhuman or degrading treatment [38] (such as sterilization, forced abortion, violence, forced medication, chemical restraint).

Two million women with disabilities live in Australia, making up 20.1% of the population of Australian women. Women with disabilities continue to be one of the most excluded, neglected and isolated groups in Australian society, experiencing widespread and serious violations of their human rights. As a group, they experience many of the recognised markers of social exclusion – socioeconomic disadvantage, social isolation, multiple forms of discrimination, poor access to services, poor housing, inadequate health care, and denial of opportunities to contribute to and participate actively in society [39].

In Australia, women with disabilities bear a disproportionate burden of poverty, are less likely to be in paid work than other women, disabled men or the population as a whole. There has been no improvement in the unemployment rate of women with disabilities for more than a decade, and where they are employed, women with disabilities experience significant and systemic discrimination [40].

Women with disabilities are less likely than their male counterparts to receive adequate vocational rehabilitation or gain entry to labour market programs. They earn less than disabled men, are in the lowest income earning bracket, yet pay the highest level of their gross income on housing, and spend a greater proportion of their income on medical care and health related expenses. When women with disabilities work, they often experience unequal hiring and promotion standards, unequal access to training and retraining, unequal access to credit and other productive resources, unequal pay for equal work and occupational segregation, and they rarely participate in economic decision-making [41].

Women with disabilities have difficulty finding accessible housing, are more likely to be institutionalised than their male counterparts and are often forced to live in situations in which they experience, or are at risk of experiencing, violence, abuse (including the use of chemical and physical restraints) and neglect [42]. The rising cost of housing means that women with disabilities, with less financial resources at their disposal than disabled men, are particularly vulnerable to living in insecure or inadequate housing [43]. Women with disabilities and their children are particularly affected by the lack of affordable housing, due to the major gap in overall economic security across the life-cycle, and to their experience of gender-based violence which leads to housing vulnerability, including homelessness [44].

Women with disabilities are denied their right to freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse – they experience alarmingly high rates of all forms of violence and abuse from a range of perpetrators yet remain excluded from violence prevention legislation, policies, services and supports. They continue to be assaulted, raped and abused at a rate of at least two times greater than other women, and are at greater risk of severe forms of intimate partner violence. Women with disabilities are denied their right to bodily integrity, to control their own bodies and to be free from interventions – evidenced by the practices of forced sterilisation, menstrual suppression, forced contraception and coerced abortion. Compared to other women, disabled women are less likely to receive appropriate health services and are significantly more likely to face medical interventions to control their fertility. Women and girls with disabilities are more likely to be unlawfully sterilised than their male counterparts. They are less likely to have children, more likely to experience marriage breakdown and divorce, and more likely to be single parents [45].

Many women with disabilities are excluded from participating in decisions that affect their lives on a daily basis, particularly for example, as active partners in their own health care. They are often stereotyped as passive, asexual, dependent, compliant, sick, child-like, incompetent and helpless, powerless or insecure [46, 47, 48, 49, 50].

Alternatively, women with developmental disabilities in particular may be regarded as overly sexual, creating a fear of profligacy and the reproduction of disabled babies, often a justification for their sterilisation. These perceptions, although very different, often result in women with disabilities being denied the right to participate in decision-making processes that affect their lives.

Women with disabilities are denied the right to experience their sexuality, to have sexual relationships and to found and maintain a family. They experience discriminatory attitudes and widely held prejudicial assumptions which question their ability and indeed, their right to experience parenthood. They have their babies and children removed by child welfare authorities without evidence of abuse, neglect and/or parental incapacity, and lose their children in custody disputes simply because they are women with disabilities [51].

Despite the work of WWDA, women with disabilities in Australia still remain largely invisible and voiceless, often ignored by national policies and laws. Their issues and needs are often overlooked within broader government services and programs. The exclusion of women with disabilities from support services, social and economic opportunities and participation in community life, has been well documented [52]. Women with disabilities have a significantly high level of unmet need for services and support to enable them to live independently and with dignity in the community [53]. They have less access to community health programs, such as breast and cervical screening services than any other group of women, and as a group, are excluded from national women’s health policies and programs.


Endnotes

[1] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (2000) Gender Equality and Equity. A summary review of UNESCO’s accomplishments since the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing 1995). UNESCO, Paris, France.

[2] Arnade, S. & Haefner, S. (2006) Gendering the Draft Comprehensive and Integral International Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities. Legal background paper. Published by Disabled Peoples International (DPI), Berlin.

[3] Gray, G. (2010 draft) By Women for Women, the Australian women’s health movement and public policy. (forthcoming).

[4] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), General Comment No. 16: The Equal Right of Men and Women to the Enjoyment of All Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Art. 3 of the Covenant), 11 August 2005, E/C.12/2005/4.

[5] Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) (2007b) ‘Forgotten Sisters – A global review of violence against women with disabilities’. WWDA Resource Manual on Violence Against Women With Disabilities. Published by WWDA, Tasmania, Australia.

[6] Meekosha, H. (2004) Gender and Disability. Entry for the Sage Encyclopaedia of Disability. Available on line at: http://wwda.org.au/gendis2001

[7] WWDA (2007b) Op Cit.

[8] Commonwealth of Australia (2009) Time for Action: The National Council’s Plan for Australia to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, 2009-2021. Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA), Canberra.

[9] See Preamble [q] of UN General Assembly, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: resolution/adopted by the General Assembly, 24 January 2007, A/RES/61/106.

[10]Groce, N. (2006) People with Disabilities, in Social Justice and Public Health, Barry S. Levy & Victor Sidel (Eds), accessed online April 2011 at: http://www.aidslex.org/site_documents/DB-0018E.pdf

[11] Meekosha, H. (2004) Op Cit.

[12] Cited in: Australian Human Rights Commission (2010) Australia’s Implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Independent Report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Accessed online July 2010 at: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cedaw/cedaws46.htm.

[13]See: Australian Institute of Health & Welfare (AIHW) (2009) Disability support services 2007 – 08. National data on services provided under the Commonwealth State/Territory Disability Agreement. Disability series. Cat. no. DIS 56.Canberra: AIHW.

[14] Arnade, S. & Haefner, S. (2006) Op Cit.

[15] WWDA (2009) Submission to the National Human Rights Consultation. WWDA, Tasmania. Available online at: http://www.wwda.org.au/subs2006

[16] Meekosha, H. (2004) Op Cit.

[17] WWDA (2008) Submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry into pay equity and associated issues related to increasing female participation in the workforce. WWDA, Tasmania. Available online at: http://www.wwda.org.au/subs2006

[18] O’Reilly, A. (2007) The right to decent work of persons with disabilities. International Labour Office (ILO), Geneva.

[19] Arnade, S. & Haefner, S. (2006) Op Cit.

[20] Cited in: Australian Human Rights Commission (2010), Op Cit.

[21] Cited in: Australian Human Rights Commission (2010), Op Cit.

[22] UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) (2008) Progress of the World’s Women 2008/2009: Who Answers to Women? Gender & Accountability. Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4a09773a2.html [accessed 2 August 2009]

[23] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), (2005) National Inquiry into Employment and Disability; Issues Paper 1: Employment and Disability – The Statistics; HREOC, Sydney.

[24] Australian Government (2008) Australian Public Service Commissioner Annual Report 2007-08, viewed 21 September 2009, http://www.apsc.gov.au/annualreport/0708/report.pdf

[25] Meekosha, H. (2004) Op Cit.

[26] Cited in: Australian Human Rights Commission (2010), Op Cit.

[27] Cited in: Australian Human Rights Commission (2010), Op Cit.

[28] Arnade, S. & Haefner, S. (2006) Op Cit.

[29] World Health Organization (2009) Promoting sexual and reproductive health for persons with disabilities, WHO/UNFPA Guidance Note 2009, accessed on line April 2011 at: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2009/9789241598682_eng.pdf

[30] Brady, S., Briton, J. & Grover, S. (2001) The Sterilisation of Girls and Young Women in Australia: Issues and Progress. A report commissioned by the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner and the Disability Discrimination Commissioner; Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Sydney, Australia. Available online at http://www.wwda.org.au/brady2

[31] WWDA (2009) Parenting Issues for Women with Disabilities in Australia: A Policy Paper. WWDA, Tasmania. Available online at: http://www.wwda.org.au/subs2006

[32] Steele, L. (2008) Making sense of the Family Court’s decisions on the non-therapeutic sterilisation of girls with intellectual disability; Australian Journal of Family Law, Vol.22, No.1.

[33] Meekosha, H. (2004) Op Cit.

[34] Ortoleva, S. (2011) Recommendations for Action to Advance the Rights of Women and Girls with Disabilities in the United Nations system; accessed online April 2011 at: http://sites.google.com/site/womenenabled/

[35] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (2010) Political Participation of Women with Disabilities in Cambodia: Research Report 2010, accessed online April 2011 at: http://www.un.org.kh/undp/knowledge/publications/political-participation-of-women-with-disabilities-in-cambodia

[36] Cited in: Australian Human Rights Commission (2010), Op Cit.

[37] Groce, N. (2006), Op Cit.

[38] Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (2009) Declaration: Making gender equality a reality. 119th Session of the Committee of Ministers, Madrid, 12 May 2009.

[39] WWDA (2009) Submission to the National Human Rights Consultation. WWDA, Tasmania. Available online at: http://www.wwda.org.au/subs2006.htm

[40] WWDA (2010) ‘Women With Disabilities & The Human Right to Health: A Policy Paper’. WWDA, Tasmania. Available online at: http://www.wwda.org.au/subs2006.htm

[41] O’Reilly, A. (2003) ‘Employment Barriers for Women with Disabilities’ in The Right to Decent Work of Persons with Disabilities; IFP/Skills Working Paper No. 14, International Labour Organization (ILO).

[42] WWDA (2009) Submission to the National Human Rights Consultation. WWDA, Tasmania. Available online at: http://www.wwda.org.au/subs2006.htm

[43] Cited in: Australian Human Rights Commission (2010), Op Cit.

[44] Australian Human Rights Commission (2010), Op Cit.

[45] WWDA (2009) Submission to the National Human Rights Consultation. WWDA, Tasmania. Available online at: http://www.wwda.org.au/subs2006.htm

[46] See for eg: Curry, M. et al (2001) Abuse of women with disabilities: An ecological model and review. Violence Against Women, Vol. 7, No. 1.

[47] See for eg: Carlson, B. (1997) Mental retardation and domestic violence: An ecological approach to intervention. Social Work, Vol.42, No.1.

[48] See for eg: Crawford, D. & Ostrove, J. (2003) Representations of Disability and the Interpersonal Relationships of Women with Disabilities. Women & Therapy, Vol. 26, No.3/4.

[49] See for eg: Chang, J. et al (2003) Helping Women with Disabilities and Domestic Violence: Strategies, Limitations and Challenges of Domestic Violence Programs and Services. Journal of Women’s Health, Vol.12, No.7.

[50] See for eg: Calderbank, R. (2000) Abuse and Disabled People: vulnerability or social indifference? Disability & Society, Vol.15, No.3.

[51] WWDA (2009) Parenting Issues for Women with Disabilities in Australia: A Policy Paper. WWDA, Tasmania. Available online at: http://www.wwda.org.au/subs2006

[52] WWDA (2009) Submission to the National Human Rights Consultation. WWDA, Tasmania. Available online at: http://www.wwda.org.au/subs2006

[53] Ibid.