WWDA Submission to the Senate Inquiry Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill (No.1)

This is a copy of the Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) Submission to the Senate Inquiry on the Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill (No.1), conducted in 2000. Copyright WWDA 2000.

About Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA)

This submission has been prepared on behalf of the National Executive Committee of Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA). WWDA is the national peak advocacy organisation for women with disabilities in Australia. It is a federating body of individuals and network in each State and Territory and is made up of women with disabilities and associated organisations. It is the only organisation in Australia of its kind and one of a very small number internationally. The organisation is run by women with disabilities for women with disabilities. WWDA addresses disability within a social model, which identifies the barriers and restrictions facing people with impairments as the focus for reform.

About Women with Disabilities

Women with disabilities appear, from the government record, to be one of the most marginalised groups in Australia. They:

  • are less likely to be in paid work than other women, men with disabilities or the population as a whole. Men with disabilities are almost twice as likely to have jobs than women with disabilities;
  • earn less than their male counterparts. 51% of women with a disability earn less than $200 per week compared to 36% of men with a disability. Only 16% of women with a disability earn over $400 per week, compared to 33% of men with a disability;
  • are less likely than their male counterparts to receive a senior secondary and tertiary education. Only 16% of all women with disabilities are likely to have any secondary education compared to 28% of men with disabilities;
  • are less likely to own their own houses than their male counterparts;
  • pay the highest level of their gross income on housing, yet are in the lowest income earning bracket;
  • are more likely to be institutionalised than their male counterparts;
  • regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or class are assaulted, raped and abused at a rate of at least two times greater than non-disabled women;
  • are often forced to live in situations in which they are vulnerable to violence;
  • are more likely to experience violence at work than other women, men with disabilities or . the population as a whole;
  • are more likely to be unlawfully sterilised than their male counterparts;
  • are less likely to receive vocational rehabilitation or entry to labour market programs;
  • report a greater need for unmet help than their male counterparts;
  • are less likely to receive appropriate services than men with equivalent needs or other women.

(Anderson 1996; Frohmader 1998; WWDA 1998; ABS 1993).

WWDA’s Position

WWDA categorically opposes any amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act on the basis that this Act is the fundamental protection of women’s rights in Australia. Any qualification of such rights on the basis of marital status threatens the rights of all women. Such an amendment would set a dangerous precedent that would enable qualification of rights, on any basis, including disability. This is of grave concern to WWDA because it clearly threatens the rights of women with disabilities who have been traditionally discriminated against on the basis of both their disability and their gender.


Access to health treatments
Due to issues of inaccessibility, lack of information, insensitive treatment and assumptions that women with disabilities are not sexually active, women with disabilities may not receive necessary reproductive and obstetric care, or appropriate instruction on protecting themselves from sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS (McCarthy cited in Kallianes and Rubenfeld, 1997). It is evident from this and other research that women with disabilities already experience discrimination in accessing medical treatments, not directly related to their disability, and in particular access to assisted reproductive treatment. In WWDA’ s view amendments to the existing legislation will further compound this discrimination.

Marital Status and Women with Disabilities
It is problematic and indicative of the marginalised status of women with disabilities that there is no data available in Australia on the marital status of women with disabilities. Data from the US however, indicates that while 60% of non-disabled women and men with disabilities are married, only 49% of women with disabilities are married (Bowe, 1984). Compared to both men with disabilities and non-disabled women, women with disabilities are more likely to never marry, marry later, and be divorced if they do get married (Asch and Fine, 1988; Hannaford, 1989; Simon, 1988). Many women with disabilities may not see marriage as a preferred status, nor may they regard the most traditional female roles as desirable. At the same time, non-disabled women are more likely than women with disabilities to have the possibilities to choose between traditional and non-traditional life-styles. (Frohmader 1998). This reality for many single women with disabilities should not preclude them from choosing to parent or to access relevant reproductive assistance.

There is almost no research on lesbians with disabilities as a separate and distinct population. As Asch and Fine (1988) point out: ‘to date, almost all research on disabled men and women seems to simply assume the irrelevance of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or social class…having a disability presumably eclipses these dimensions of social experience’ (cited in O’toole 1996). Toole and Bregante (cited in O’Toole 1996) agree that there is tremendous resistance to the fact that not all women with disabilities are heterosexual. As they point out ‘the attempts to control reproduction, sometimes to the point of sterilisation, and the emphasis to teach disabled women to say no to sexuality, reflect non-disabled people’s discomfort with disabled women’s emerging independence, but also an assumption of heterosexuality’.

WWDA believes that lesbian women with disabilities have the same right to parent and raise children as other women. It further believes that children’s well-being is best served by care and nurturance of the highest quality irrespective of the gender, sexual preference and marital status of their caregivers.

Australia’s obligation to uphold human rights conventions

WWDA expresses profound disappointment at the Australian government’s proposed introduction of an amendment which would result in its failure to honour human rights conventions to which it is a signatory. WWDA fully supports Australia’s recognition of several important international conventions which enshrine human rights including civil, social, cultural, political and economic rights. These international instruments aim to promote the equality of women and men through eliminating discrimination and promoting equality of opportunity. Failure to honour the obligations of inherent in these conventions will seriously compromise the status and rights of women with disabilities.

The Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons, G.A. res. 3447 (XXX), 30 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 34) at 88, U.N. Doc. A/10034 (1975) asserts that:

“disabled persons have the right to medical, psychological and functional treatment” and

“these rights shall be granted to all disabled persons without any exception whatsoever and without distinction or discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, state of wealth, birth or any other situation applying either to the disabled person himself or herself or to his or her family.”

Clearly any exemptions to rights to reproductive assistance including those based on marital status contravene this declaration.

The right to raise a family is a fundamental human right. Conventions supporting this right include the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW, ratified by Australia in 1983, specifies that signatory countries “shall ensure that women have the same rights to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children…” (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Article 16 (e)).

One of the most important aspects of CEDAW is that these provisions extend to all women regardless of sexuality and irrespective of marital status. This means that Australia has an international obligation to ensure that lesbians and single women are not discriminated against in their endeavours to raise a family.

This obligation extends to health service providers, who have an ethical obligation to provide the same services to all women without negatively discriminating.

The Sex Discrimination Act (1984) was designed to implement the obligations under CEDAW. Allowing individual States to discriminate on the basis of marital status with regard to access to reproductive technologies sets a dangerous precedent for weakening other Federal Acts designed to protect minority groups. In the absence of Federal sexuality discrimination legislation and an overriding human rights treaty, the Federal Government cannot afford to weaken its existing legislation in the eyes of the International community.


WWDA strongly urges the Senate to oppose the introduction of the amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. The successful passage of this amendment would severely compromise the rights and status of all women and, in particular, that of women with disabilities. The Senate must recognise, given Australia’s highly regarded track record in the development of legislation protecting human rights, that such a move would discredit both the government and the Australian people in the international arena. More importantly this move would significantly affect the lives of women with disabilities who already experience profound discrimination.