Top row (L-R) Abul Hossain, AHM Noman Khan, Khushi Kabir,Tania Haque, Murali Padmanabhan, Muhammad Mushfiqul Wara Bottom row (L-R) Tazin Hossain, Ashrafunnahar Mishti, Nasima Akhter, Jahan Ara Hena, Nusrat Irene, Arafat Sultana Lata
Top row (L-R) Abul Hossain, AHM Noman Khan, Khushi Kabir,Tania Haque, Murali Padmanabhan, Muhammad Mushfiqul Wara Bottom row (L-R) Tazin Hossain, Ashrafunnahar Mishti, Nasima Akhter, Jahan Ara Hena, Nusrat Irene, Arafat Sultana Lata

A virtual roundtable on ‘Gender discrimination and the state women with disabilities: Covid-19 perspective’ was organised on 24 December 2020 by Light for the World, Women with Disabilities Development Foundation (WDDF), CBM International, Centre for Disability in Development (CDD) and Prothom Alo. The event was supported by Inclusive Futures, UK Aid. The discussion has reproduced in brief in this supplement.

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Murali Padmanabhan, Disability Inclusion Advisor, Light for the World: It is necessary to understand how both men and women have been affected during the coronavirus outbreak due to their disabilities. Light for the World is working in this regard. Gender is a very significant factor. The state of a disabled woman and a disabled man affected by coronavirus is certainly different. As it is, disabled persons are at risk in these times. And the gender factor is pushing up the risks many times higher. We have tried to assess through our work what suffering and how much suffering a woman with disabilities undergoes due to gender, particularly in the areas of education, healthcare, receiving assistance, security, communication, family and society.

We have also looked into how women with disabilities, who are at greater risk, received legal aid, how those involved in this area functioned and what obstacles there were in receiving and providing assistance. We also looked into what the government, the organisations dealing with disabilities and the mainstream organisations were doing to resolve the obstacles and their advice. The important experience gained through this is that cooperation among all concerned will help in preventing the gender-bad disparity among the disabled.

Tazin Hossain, Programme Manager, CBM International: Disabled women and girl children are at the highest risk. It has been seen that women with disabilities are often mistreated by their families. There is a lack of an accessible environment for them to seek assistance for prevention and support. Disabled women and girl children face two to four times more violence than others. According to WDDF information collected from various newspapers and electronic media, 47 disabled women were subject to rape between January and November. And 167 disabled women were victims of various types of violence from members of their families.

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Ashrafunnahar Mishti, Executive Director, Women with Disabilities Development Foundation: Light for the World, WDDF and CDD are implementing a six-month project with support from the British government’s UK Aid. Under this project, Light for the World and WDDF, with CDD support and supervision of local DPO workers, arranged awareness meetings for the prevention of gender discrimination towards women with disabilities in Chattogram, Gaibandha, Pabna and Barishal. These meetings were joined by 161 participants including representatives of various legal aid organisations, NGOs, civil society, DPO members and others.

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Among the significant recommendations made at these meetings was, firstly, that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Persons with Disabilities Rights and Protection Act 2013 should be properly implemented. It is essential to draw up an updated list based on age, gender, type and extent of disability.

Secondly, a separate scheme is required for the assistance of women and disabled women in any calamity and emergency situation. For instance, ensuring they have ration cards and health cards and also stimulus for their employment in post-disaster times.

Thirdly, extensive awareness programmes need to be taken up regarding gender discrimination and violence against women. For example, DPOs, educational institutions and religious institutions could be involved in this and the participation of women with disabilities should be ensured. Also, hotline numbers for emergency help and the rehabilitation centres for oppressed women should be made known to all.

Fourthly, it is important to increase awareness at all levels of the government including the police administration concerning the rights of persons with disabilities and gender equality. The referral system must be strengthened and made disability-friendly.

Fifthly, ensuing accessibility to the courts and to avail legal assistance. These institutions must have facilities for Bangla sign language at government expense.

Sixthly, information must be collected at a local and national level about violence against women with disabilities, analysed and, if necessary, arrangements made for a speedy tribunal to resolve these matters. Seventhly, though disability is placed under the social welfare ministry, initiative must be taken to activate other ministries in this regard as well. Various projects and departments of the women and children affairs ministry must be made active against such discrimination. From the centre to the local level, all programmes for disabled women must be run in accordance to the national action plan for the rights of the disabled.

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Nusrat Irene, National Disability Inclusion Officer, Light for the World: Many disabled women themselves do not understand gender-based discrimination or violence against women. They do not realise that mental humiliation or depriving one of fundamental rights is a form of discrimination. They must also understand where to go if they need legal assistance in the case of violence.

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Khushi Kabir, Coordinator, Nijera Kori: Disability can be physical and it can be of the mind too. This must be taken into consideration. Internationally, UN rights are the same for all. It must be ensured that each and everyone avails these rights. The organisations working for people with disabilities are doing a lot for their rights. But it shouldn’t be that only specific organisations will do this work and the rest of us will not. During the coronavirus outbreak, women are being subject to violence a lot. And women with disabilities are being subject to violence even more. We must all unite in this regard.

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Jahan Ara Hena, general secretary, WDDF: Women with disabilities are the most marginalised community in our country. The government provides relief and other assistance to the disabled and all others. But the disabled people, the women with disabilities in particular, do not get these facilities that easily. Women with disabilities are not getting healthcare, the social welfare directorate’s allowance and the VGF cards at a union level. There is no data on how many visually challenged women there are, how many physically disabled women there are and how many girl children there are with disabilities, and so the disabled women do not get proper assistance. It is essential for the government to draw up a special list for women with disabilities and to arrange employment for them.

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Nasima Akhter, President, National Council for Disabled Women: There is very little legal aid for disabled women who are victims of violence in Bangladesh. When a disabled woman is victim of violence, our lawyers are not very aware about women with disabilities. Most of the victim disabled women are speech, hearing and mentally impaired. Many lawyers do not understand sign language. Disabled women need proper work environment. The Bangladesh National Women’s Policy speaks about disabled women. It will be very beneficial to disabled women if steps are taken to implement this policy in the government development plans.

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Tania Haque, professor, Women and Gender Studies Department, Dhaka University: It has been said that disabled women are deprived of various services. They are subject to sexual abuse. They are beset with all sorts of crises during the coronavirus crisis. The families must first been prepared to help them overcome this. The family’s role comes first. Men and women are all humans. We have different needs and demands. Research is required to specify those demands and needs. Achieving sustainable development will be very difficult unless the needs and demands of everyone is determined.

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Muhammad Mushfiqul Wara, Country Director, CBM International: In order to increase awareness among everyone regarding disability, it is important to emphasize the inclusion of persons with disabilities in education, politics, employment and all sectors. All steps in this regard should be taken with coordination at a government and non-government level.

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AHM Noman Khan, Executive Director, Centre for Disability in Development (CDD): General speaking it is seen that the mothers are the one who take care of persons with autism and other disabilities. Recently 500 persons participated in a training programmes for those involved in taking care of persons with disabilities. It was seen that 95 per cent of them were the mothers. The others were brothers and others. Those mothers devoted their entire lives to caring for their disabled children. They are also castigated for giving birth to children with disabilities. There is need to pay attention to the mental health of the caregivers too.

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Abul Hossain, project director, multi-sectoral programme for the prevention of repression against women: Around five or six years ago, the social welfare ministry carried out a countrywide survey of persons with disabilities. They came to the conclusion that 10 per cent of our population were disabled. That would mean about 17 million (1 crore 70 lakh) people are disabled.

It is imperative that everyone has an empathetic attitude towards those with disabilities. We need to be more sensitive. We do not spend on mental health as much as we spend on medical treatment at hospitals, clinics, health centres, medicines and physicians. We need to be more conscious about this.

From last November we began free diploma courses. These courses have 20 sessions. These courses teach interaction in family environment, anger management at an individual level, and so on. Women with disabilities often cannot come outdoors. The mentally disabled often cannot adjust. That is why we have started virtual training at home. They will benefit it two ways if they cannot leave home during Covid or after Covid, and they can earn while remaining at home. Firstly, they will enter join the mainstream and their confidence will be boosted. Secondly, if they can help the family, then the family will not see them as a burden. The family will have a positive attitude towards them. It is difficult on the part of the government alone to look after this huge community through the social safety nets and stimulus. We should all come forward along with the government in this regard.

Arafat Sultana Lata was the sign language interpreter at the event. Prothom Alo associate editor Abdul Quayum made the opening presentation. And the roundtable discussion was moderated by Prothom Alo assistant editor Firoz Choudhury.