By Dr. Ruth Owen, Chief Executive, Leonard Cheshire; Antara Ganguli, Director, UNGEI Secretariat; Charlotte V. McClain-Nhlapo, Global Disability Advisor, World Bank Group, with disability youth advocates Ian Banda, Maria Njeri, Mind Thitiphorn Prawatsrichai and Shrutilata Singh.
“Break the bias,” the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, will undoubtedly resonate with girls and women around the world. Gender-based discrimination and bias are daily realities affecting every aspect of women and girls’ lives. Notably, the lived experiences of women and girls with disabilities are distinctive and unique, continuously impacted by the intersection of their gender with stigma and discrimination based on their disability. This intersecting bias is not always well understood in the disability or women’s rights discourse. Therefore, for us to break these intersectional disadvantages, we need to understand the full picture.
Gender and disability: a data divide
While there are more concerted efforts to collect disability disaggregated data, the reality is that global disability data remains sparse. This makes it difficult to assess the unique intersectional challenges that girls and women with disabilities face when accessing education, employment, social protection and social engagement. It was therefore encouraging to see commitments around gender, disability inclusion in education and disability data collection being made at the 2022 Global Disability Summit.
The timing of these disability and gender commitments could not have been better. Particularly, as we continue to grasp the repercussions of the pandemic which estimates that 20 million more secondary school-aged girls could be out of school post-pandemic. But what is the impact for girls with disabilities? Emerging research indicates that during school closures, existing gender inequalities regarding the burden of household labour, the gender digital divide, and risk of gender-based violence and child marriage increased. Although this evidence paints a broad picture of girls’ education and gender equality during the pandemic, we don’t yet have sufficient data to understand the experiences of girls with disabilities specifically. So, how can we contribute to ensuring there’s better disability disaggregated data that reflects disability and gender?
"Nothing About Us Without Us": an intergenerational research approach
This year, Leonard Cheshire and UNGEI, with support from the World Bank’s Inclusive Education Initiative (IEI), are collaborating on new research on ‘Gender and Disability in Education’. Together, we want to address this research and knowledge gap.
A multi-generational Advisory Group is shaping the research design and implementation. Four young feminist activities with disabilities, representing regional diversities of their wider youth-led OPDs and networks*, incorporate their lived experiences and expertise with four seasoned disability rights and inclusive education researchers to provide advice and steer to the project.
This approach operationalizes the principle of “Nothing About Us Without Us” - the recognition of people with disabilities as essential contributors, partners and leaders across every aspect of our social, economic and political fabric. It ensures that the diverse realities of learners with disabilities are embedded throughout the research design, implementation and outcomes, based on meaningful partnership and consultation.
As a young woman, especially a young woman with disabilities, it is very easy to go unseen. Data is central to pointing out this discrimination and furthering the cause. 'Breaking the Bias' is the need of the hour, and data can help us meet it. Getting data on disability and gender instead of disability or gender can work wonders in terms of understanding where the challenges are and what we need to do. Data is the proof and we are the action.
Breaking the bias: “There is so much power in data”
Our forthcoming research will look at existing data and evidence on gender and disability in education from 10 low- and middle-income countries in South Asia and Africa. We aim to assess the gaps, gain an understanding of intersectionality between disability and gender in education, and explore how this impacts the learning and wellbeing of children with disabilities. The research will also study how education policies and programmes address gender and disability and protect the right to education for girls with disabilities in particular. The research findings of this phase will inform the second stage of our research.
The initial mapping has already uncovered some interesting pre-Covid trends around gender-based disadvantages in education. Looking at existing UNICEF data, for example, 12% of adolescent boys aged 15-17 with one or more functional difficulties felt personally discriminated against or harassed in the previous 12 months, compared to 21% of adolescent girls with one or more functional difficulties. However, what has becoming increasingly evident is the complete lack of intersectional data. While there is a growing body of data on gender in education, and disability in education, the two rarely come together. The goal of our research is to build knowledge and evidence at that critical intersection.
In the second phase of the research, we will gather new first-person evidence from children and youth with disabilities across three countries in Asia and Africa. Recognizing that gender biases and discrimination in education exist beyond the classroom, we will also hear from learners’ parents, teachers and communities. We want to understand how gender gaps in education for children with disabilities have changed in the context of Covid-19, what can be done to close gender gaps and promote education for girls with disabilities in particular, and how gender-responsive and inclusive education systems can be more resilient against future crises. Armed with this knowledge, we’ll be in a much better place to advocate for further data collection, policies, legislation and strategies that confront these challenges head on and really 'break the bias'.
There is so much power in data. This data will be so important for tracking progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals and making sure girls and young women with disabilities are included in the process!
“Data which actually reflects the lives of disabilities”: evidence for youth-led advocacy
“The importance of data which actually reflects the lives of girls with disabilities, their stories and perspectives gives cause for better awareness, advancing access to services and more meaningful participation,” explains disability youth advocate Maria Njeri (Njeri Maria Foundation). “Data can help personalise interventions for girls with disabilities in acquiring education. Girls with disabilities are from different geographical areas, cultural, racial backgrounds, communal and family setups. As different as their environments are, thus need be their interventions.”
As a female with a disability who is very passionate about the education sector, I think inclusion of woman with disabilities is important in any decisions made.
Maria and Luigia’s points emphasize the need to consider the contextual elements that affect the individual lived experience of girls with disabilities and dispels the notion of homogeneity. Income, race and geographic location are other intersectional factors than can compound girls with disabilities’ exclusion from education. There is no “one size fits all” approach when it comes to inclusion. That’s why research like this is so important: qualitative and participatory data is crucial in providing a nuanced picture.
Mind Thitiphorn Prawatsrichai, a Leonard Cheshire Youth Advocate and Advisory Group Member, reflects on her own experiences: “for me, as a female wheelchair user, equality, and quality accessibility, are the main challenges. Research and evidence data on gender and disability is so important, especially for youth advocacy and for challenging bias that is too often faced by girls with disabilities. Whatever boys have access to, a girl should also have access to the same education.”
Adding to the vital disaggregated data that currently exists on The Disability Data Portal, UNGEI, Leonard Cheshire and the World Bank IEI are looking forward to building on existing efforts to fill disability data gaps. Data that is collected in partnership with young people with disabilities, that is intersectional, high quality, reliable and comprehensive, is a vital tool for transformative and sustainable change. Ultimately, we believe that it will enable us to come together to help 'break the bias' and advocate for an equal world for all.