WWDA Acceptance Speech to the NationalHuman Rights Award, December 2001

On December 10, 2001, Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) was awarded the prestigious National Human Rights Award (Community Category) by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. In presenting WWDA with the Award at a function in Sydney on International Human Rights Day, the judges said:

“WWDA has achieved an enormous amount in a short period of time, working tirelessly on behalf of one of the most marginalised and disadvantaged groups in Australia. Areas in which it has worked assiduously include unlawful sterilisation of women and girls with disabilities, reproductive health, violence against women with disabilities, and leadership and mentoring. Although it has a domestic focus, WWDA has provided inspiration for women with disabilities all over the world, receiving letters of thanks from as far away as the Ukraine and the USA. The judges were impressed by the broad base of WWDA’s work and influence and the range of methods used to advocate for women living with disabilities, from lobbying to education. They said WWDA deserved ongoing recognition and was a valuable and visible organisation.”

Ms Helen Meekosha, President of WWDA, accepted the Award on behalf of the organisation. Her acceptance speech is reproduced here. Copyright 2001.

“I wish to acknowledge and pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land we are standing on today, the Gadigal people and the Eora nation.

This award celebrates the spirit of women in some of the most adverse circumstances. We believe that our experiences, as women with disabilities, have a distinct place in writing the history of the diversity of contemporary Australia. Women with disabilities in Australia have had to struggle for recognition of their particular issues before the work on redressing the injustices can commence.

WWDA is, more than an organization run by disabled women for disabled women. It is a collectivity offering robust and sound critiques of government policy and programs. Despite its fragility during this period of an intensified market environment, WWDA still manages to retain a pro-active space for the realization of our identities as women with disabilities in situations of discrimination and stress. We have emerged as a leading and resilient voice in national disability debates. Yet, the struggle for recognition and then for rights and justice is continuous small gains can be easily undermined.

Over the past few years the Commonwealth has taken many decisions that adversely affect women with disabilities. It has refused to sign the UN optional protocol on CEDAW that would allow Australian women dissatisfied with government actions to challenge them in the UN. Most recently, the Commonwealth was not among the sponsors on Friday 30 November of the UN General Assembly Resolution to begin the process for a UN Convention to protect and promote the rights of people with disabilities. The Australian government did not consult WWDA nor, as far as I am aware, Australian disability organisations on its position – and in the light of its stance on UN Conventions, I believe that the Australian government will only support the convention when it is finalised, if there is a massive show of support from the disability and wider communities.

WWDA has played a critical role in raising public awareness and defending a space for a truly civil society. Yet our political struggles have become increasingly problematic for the Federal Govt, which demonstrates an incapacity to decide on how to categorize (or, indeed, to control) us. We exist on a small federal grant from the Department of Family and Community Services, which can barely sustain our core work. I believe that this in itself is not in keeping with the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities 18 established by the UN which state that:

“States should encourage and support economically and in other ways the formation and strengthening of organizations of persons with disabilities, family members and/or advocates.”

Currently the sustained pressure needed to ensure action by reluctant governments on the issues of significance to disabled women is causing the emotional burn-out of many of our members.

We are a national organisation, but we work with emerging groups of women across the globe, particularly those in developing countries. So, in accepting this award, WWDA wishes to recognise a number of women and children whose experience of human rights abuses has been revealed in the past year:

  • Women who have acquired disabilities as a result of war and conflict, in particular the women of Afghanistan
  • Disabled women who have been forcibly sterilised, and those who have had their children removed. A number of these women spoke out in public earlier this year at a forum organised by WWDA. Their courage and conviction have been acknowledged by many disabled women world-wide, from Bangladesh to Canada, to Japan to Singapore; (see the recently released report ‘Moving Forward’)
  • Asylum seekers drowned at sea, many of them women survivors of torture and trauma;
  • The 20 disabled women incarcerated in the village of Sanadinovo, Bulgaria reported by Amnesty International as living in conditions so inhuman and degrading amounted to a ‘slow death’;
  • Muslim women harassed and humiliated in the streets of Australian cities;
  • Indigenous women still suffering from the psychological trauma of the Stolen generation; and
  • Disabled women refused entry to join their families in Australia, because of their impairment – such as the daughter of Shahraz Kayani, who died after setting himself on fire at Parliament House.

WWDA acknowledges the personal and collective traumas experienced by this diverse group of women and calls for an end to human rights violations against women and children worldwide. We salute those women who continue, despite the most extreme adversity, to campaign for their rights.

Finally, as President, I would like to acknowledge all the women who have been part of WWDA from its earliest times to the present day; those who have served on our national committee, the many delegates who represent WWDA at international, federal and national level, the project workers, the grass roots activists, the campaigners and last, but not least, our current Executive Officer Carolyn Frohmader, for her dedication, indeed her devotion to the organisation and her care for women in distress. And often, too often, above and beyond the call of duty.”

Helen Meekosha, President WWDA, 9 December 2001

a picture of Helen Meekosha, Carolyn Frohmader and Helen's dog Sketch at the Human Rights Award Presentation

Helen Meekosha, Carolyn Frohmader, and Sketch at the 2001 Human Rights Awards, Sydney.