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As Women Unlimited, we believe that disabled girls and women are not only entitled to the protection and assistance, but to full participation in society as they have the right to express their opinions, take part in decision-making that affects them and be protected from violence and abuse like everyone else. The inclusion of children with disabilities is a matter of social justice and an essential investment in the future of society. It is not based on charity or goodwill but is an integral element of the expression and realisation of universal human rights.

Disabled people experience profound discrimination and social disadvantage, which is magnified in the lives of women with disabilities. They have been systematically disadvantaged by social institutions like the family and the education system, socially and in the workplace. Too often disabled people in general and women with disabilities in particular are viewed as incapable of leading full and successful lives because of their impairments. Much less are they regarded as capable of leading others and organisations, Children with disabilities and their families constantly experience barriers to the enjoyment of their basic human rights and to their inclusion in society.

Their abilities are overlooked, their capacities are underestimated and their needs are given low priority. Yet, the barriers they face are more frequently as a result of the environment in which they live than as a result of their impairment. The social model of disability acknowledges that obstacles to participation in society and its institutions reside in the environment rather than in the individual, and that such barriers can and must be prevented, reduced or eliminated. Environmental obstacles come in many guises and are found at all levels of society. They are reflected in policies and regulations and such obstacles may be physical – for example barriers in public buildings, transportation and recreational facilities. They may also be attitudinal – widespread underestimation of the abilities and potential of children with disabilities creates a vicious cycle of underexpectation, under-achievement and low priority in the allocation of resources.

Poverty is a pervasive barrier to participation worldwide, and is both a cause and a consequence of disability. Families living in poverty are much more vulnerable to sickness and infection, especially in infancy and early childhood. They are also less likely to receive adequate health care or to be able to pay for basic medicines or school fees. The costs of caring for a child with a disability create further hardship for a family. It is therefore, of paramount importance, to ensure that women with disabilities are automatically but explicitly included in the initial objectives, targets and monitoring indicators of all development programmes as well as ensure the inclusion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls is a standalone goal.

Above all, we should also recognise however, that measures put in place have been insufficient to achieve the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms for women and girls with disabilities, or their enjoyment or full participation in the gains of sustainable development. Of importance is also to acknowledge that women and girls with disabilities are diverse, because of their physical, sensory, intellectual, mental or psychosocial conditions, in addition to their intersecting identities and experiences based on ethnic or racial origin, income levels, religious and political beliefs, cultural identity, and gender identity, geographic origins and location, or migrant status, among others.

In this case, Women Unlimited is working to empower women and girls with disabilities and enhance their participation and promote leadership in society. This is being done in strong partnership with Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA), SWAGAA and Kwakha Indvodza, under the funding of European Union (EU).