Leave No One Behind: the importance of disability inclusion, gender equality and Australian aid

When the Sustainable Development Goals where launched they made a pledge to ‘reach the furthest behind first’. But is this actually happening? And what can be done for one of the most marginalised groups in the world; women and girls with disabilities?

Last week, I was delighted to launch CBM Australia’s new report, Leave No One Behind: Gender equality, disability inclusion and leadership for sustainable development.

At its heart, this paper has one clear message: that in seeking to leave no woman behind, we should be led by women and girls with disabilities themselves.

Women and girls with disabilities are often the most oppressed and marginalised in societies around the world. They are too often left behind, sitting at the periphery of our focus on both disability and gender.

They experience poorer outcomes than women without disabilities and men with disabilities in measures of employment, health and safety from violence:

  • In developing countries, 58.6 per cent of men with disabilities are employed, compared to just 20.1 per cent of women with disabilities.
  • Women and girls with disabilities are two to three times more likely to experience physical or sexual violence than women without disabilities.
  • Women and girls with disabilities are routinely subject to forced and involuntary treatment, including sterilisation and hysterectomies at rates up to three times higher than other women.

These women are much more than numbers. They are complex people with varied identities – they are older women and young girls. They are ethnic and religious minorities. They are indigenous women and they are refugees.

They are mothers and daughters, friends and partners, and independent women forging their own futures.

In my role as CEO of CBM Australia, I have the privilege of getting to know many of these women and their stories.

Women and girls with disabilities experience complex layers of marginalisation, and face heightened barriers to achieving the targets set out in the Sustainable Development Goals framework. In order to truly ‘end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere’, an important part of the SDGs, particular attention must be given to the substantial global community of women and girls living at the intersection of gender and disability discrimination.

Some time ago, I travelled to the Indian state of Jharkhand, where CBM implements a community-based inclusive development program with support from the Australian Government’s Australian NGO Cooperation Program. Jharkhand is a hard place to be a woman.

Rates of early marriage are the highest in the country, and women face routine violence inside and outside the home, including public lynching on the basis of ‘witchcraft’.

Women and girls with disabilities are at particular risk here. Through our work with a dedicated women’s organisation, we have heard some of the most harrowing stories of violence. Stories of women with vision impairments targeted for sexual violence because their attackers thought they would be unable to identify their rapists. Girls with intellectual disabilities gang raped because they were seen as ‘easy targets’, unable to know their rights or access justice.

I am devastated by their stories.

But I am comforted to know that our work, with the support of Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP), has helped these women and girls to access justice and see the perpetrators of violence punished. It is in these communities, that Australian aid, can and is making a tangible difference.

But women and girls with disabilities are not only vulnerable; they are strong, with the capacity to fight for their rights and lead their communities.

In Jharkhand, I met another woman who has stayed with me. When we met, Premnika was 35 years old. She had contracted polio, and as a result acquired a physical impairment to her legs. What I remember most is how her smile could light up a room. But it wasn’t always this way.

As a person with a disability, Premnika was excluded from employment, yet was burdened with the high cost of medical interventions and rehabilitation. As a woman, Premnika also faced exclusion and intimate partner violence, like so many other women with and without disabilities.

By participating in a community based inclusive development program, however, Premnika received counselling, training in leadership and disability rights, and livelihood skills. She now earns an independent income, employs other women in her community, advocates passionately on disability rights, and was recognised as a “State Role Model” by Jharkhand’s Chief Minister.

Women like Premnika face barriers in areas including access to education, employment, healthcare, freedom from violence, and leadership.

These are all key measures under Sustainable Development Goal 5 – ‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’. But nowhere in Goal 5 does it reflect the specific challenges and heightened barriers faced by women and girls with disabilities.

It’s up to all of us to ensure that our approaches to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals are guided by the principle of ‘leave no one behind’.

We have made the first steps towards ensuring that women with disabilities are no longer left behind. In 2016, the world voted on new appointees to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. No women were elected. This left one woman halfway through her term, on a committee of 18 people.

Thankfully, governments around the world – including Australia – recognised this injustice, and supported women with disabilities to stand for election. I was thrilled to see that Australia’s candidate, Rosemary Kayess, was elected to the committee last week.

The Australian Government has made admirable commitments to women with disabilities in our region, through their dedicated strategies and investments in both disability-inclusive and gender equitable development. Gender has become a flagship issue for Australia’s aid program, with this commitment rightly shared by all along the political spectrum.

And this investment has yielded great results – when the Millennium Development Goals concluded in 2015, Vanuatu reported that 72 per cent of girls are now completing primary education. This is well above the average for lower-income countries around the world. For girls with disabilities, however, there is less to celebrate. Only 15 per cent of girls with disabilities in Vanuatu complete primary school.

With its Development for All strategy for a disability-inclusive aid program, the Australian Government set out a clear mandate to reach those furthest behind, including women and girls who lived at the periphery of prior development efforts, marginalised by both their gender and their disability.

In its Disability Framework, the UK’s Department for International Development also noted the double discrimination faced by women and girls with disabilities, and pledged to address barriers through their gender and disability investments. These declarations of strategic intent have flowed through to the recipients of aid funding and the implementers of development programs.

Many non-government actors have begun to recognise and actively target the particular barriers faced by women and girls with disabilities. But these barriers have deep roots, and their dismantling will take sustained, long-term efforts from a wide range of partners.

While this recognition of barriers and these strategies for change provide the impetus, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides the urgency to act. In order to leave no woman behind, all development actors at all levels can take steps to create barrier-free, enabling environments for change.

So much progress has been made, but there is more work to be done.

In order to truly achieve the SDGs, women with disabilities must be supported to share their experiences of individual exclusion, build community-based enabling environments, and contribute to global solutions. In order to leave no woman behind, every woman must be heard.

They are not voiceless.

They are experts and advocates, and it is our responsibility to make the world stage more accessible and welcoming of their permanent presence.


Jane Edge is the CEO of CBM Australia. CBM is an international Christian development organisation devoted to improving the lives of people with disabilities in the poorest places on earth. Poverty and disability go hand in hand creating a cycle of inequality, isolation and exclusion that leads to the most extreme forms of poverty.