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Survey finds disabled women doubly disadvantaged

A pioneering study on women with disabilities, conducted in five eastern Indian states, finds that disabled women, besides lacking education and employment opportunities, are completely ignorant about their legal rights

The first-ever baseline survey on disabled women, conducted by the Association of Women with Disabilities (AWWD) in the five eastern states of Assam, West Bengal, Orissa, Jharkhand and Bihar, has found them to be sorely disadvantaged by lack of education and employment opportunities, and ignorance about their legal rights.  

The survey was undertaken through 2007 in India and other SAARC countries; compilation of the report was completed in 2008. 

The survey was part of a South Asian regional initiative aimed at ‘Creating Spaces for Women with Disabilities (WWDs) to Communicate and Advocate for their Rights’, undertaken by AWWD and its partners Akasa (Sri Lanka) and Social Assistance for the Rehabilitation of the Physically Vulnerable (SARPV, Bangladesh). 

The survey was carried out in technical collaboration with Healthlink Worldwide, and funding from DFID (UK). It restricted itself to physically disabled women. 

According to the survey, illiteracy among WWDs was found to be as high as 70.9% in Jharkhand, 63.8% in Bihar, 46.1% in West Bengal, 41.7% in Orissa, and 32.5% in Assam. The corresponding illiteracy figures for able-bodied women in these states was 60.62% in Jharkhand, 66.43% in Bihar, 39.78% in West Bengal, 49.5% in Orissa, and 43.97% in Assam. 

A very small percentage of physically disabled women were found to have completed secondary education. Assam, with 18.6% of its women having acquired secondary education, fared better than all the other states. In West Bengal, only 3.3% of WWDs were reported to have finished secondary education. This, despite an overwhelming majority of respondents -- 90% in West Bengal and 75.7% in Orissa -- feeling the need for WWDs to be educated. 

Similarly, although a high percentage of respondents felt the need for disabled women to get gainful employment, less than a quarter of respondents were found to be employed. So, whereas 91.8% in Bihar, 86.8% in Assam, 86.4% in West Bengal, 78.7% in Jharkhand, and 67.4% in Orissa believed in the physically disabled being employed, the employment figures were found to be dismal -- 23.6% in West Bengal and a low 8.9% in Jharkhand -- although the figures for general female participation in the workforce were as high as 26.4% in Jharkhand, which was better than Orissa’s 24.7%, Assam’s 20.7%, and considerably better than Bihar’s 18.8% and West Bengal’s 18.3%. 

The major reason for this, the survey found, was that there was no scope for employment; the disability factor came in at second place. 

As regards their role in household decisions, 72% of women with disabilities confessed to having no role at all in Bihar, as against 68.3% in Orissa, 49.6% in Jharkhand, and 44.5% in West Bengal. Assam fared much better here, with 72.2% of women reporting that their role mattered in household decisions. 

Neither did any of these women have much say in decisions concerning their own life and health. Assam fared best here too, with 73.9% having a say in decisions concerning their own lives, compared to just 27% in Bihar and 24.3% in Orissa. 

In terms of accessibility and mobility, most women found all rooms in their houses easily accessible, with figures clocking in as high as 90.6% in West Bengal, compared to 52.4% in Assam. 

Awareness of the Persons with Disabilities (PWD) Act, 1995 was a mere 5% in Assam and a low 0.3% in Bihar. With the single exception of Orissa, where 57.3% were reportedly aware of government schemes and policies related to women and the disabled, the awareness ranged from 14.9% in Assam, 10% in Jharkhand and West Bengal, to as low as 2.6% in Bihar. 

Given the poor rate of education and high illiteracy among disabled women, the issue of social discrimination elicited confusing responses. At one end of the spectrum, 65.8% denied ever being socially discriminated against, while at the other end 61.8% accepted that they could not attend social gatherings. 

Otherwise too, women were found to be severely restricted in enjoying their basic rights owing to societal and family pressures, as informed by panchayat representatives, schoolteachers and government officials. As regards levels of awareness, government officials and panchayat representatives fell short on many counts. Although aware of the PWD Act, officials and panchayat representatives were poorly informed about the various schemes and funding details. Nor was there much awareness about the Convention on Elimination of all types of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). As far as non-government organisations (NGOs) were concerned, at least half of them were confused about provisions under the PWD Act. Most believed that laws relating to women’s rights included provisions to deal with women with disabilities. 

The print media fared comparatively better, with 43% of media persons being aware of state and national policies related to persons with disabilities. However, the electronic media showed very little awareness or inclination on reporting on issues relating to the disabled. 

  • People with disabilities (PWDs) comprise 4-8% of the total Indian population, which amounts to 40-90 million individuals. Nearly half of the disabled are women. Yet, women with disabilities (WWDs) have always remained an invisible minority owing to illiteracy and social attitudes.
  • Interestingly, even as India’s GDP grew at a robust 7% and above in the last decade, the employment rate among disabled adults fell from 43% in 1991 to 38% in 2002, according to the World Bank.

--By Rina Mukherji 
(Rina Mukherji is a Kolkata-based journalist)   

Infochange News & Features, January 2010