UN Security Council considers devastating impact of international conflict on disabled women and girls

Founder and director of the South Sudan Women with Disabilities Network, Caroline Atim, made history on 02 April 2021. As the first deaf woman to address the security council during the Open Debate on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, she explained the catastrophic situation in South Sudan as being exacerbated for women and girls with disabilities.

Socially excluded

People with disabilities have been found to form one of the most socially excluded groups in any displaced or conflict-affected community[1] with around one in five women worldwide being a woman with a disability. For women with disabilities, gender-based violence is often compounded by disability-based discrimination.

According to Women Enabled International, globally, women and girls with disabilities are as much as three times more likely to experience gender-based violence, especially during conflict.[2] The Working Group on Violence Against Women with Disabilities, ‘Forgotten Sisters’ cites international studies which have concluded that women with disabilities suffered up to three times greater risk of rape, by a stranger or acquaintance, than their non-disabled peers.[3]

A 2017 study by the UK Department for International Development review[4] looked at the available evidence surrounding the risks and vulnerabilities faced by women and girls with disabilities in conflict and crises and interventions to support them. The study revealed that women and girls with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to discrimination, exploitation and violence including gender-based violence. Additionally, the report found that they may have difficulties accessing support and services that could reduce their risk and vulnerability due to the breakdown of national or regional economic structures. Those with disabilities and in particular women, are often some of the last to benefit from aid programmes or relief efforts in post-conflict situations.

Women and girls with disabilities caught in conflict may find it more difficult to escape, call for help or communicate abuse. Their support networks may have disappeared, along with their shelters and health facilities due to the civil or international unrest. An example provided by Disability Rights Activist, Nujeen Mustafa, at the UN Security Council briefing on the humanitarian situation in Syria, on 24 April 2019: a man can seek help from another man, but a woman cannot if she wishes to flee a dangerous or potentially dangerous situation. This being especially true for disabled women making it “doubly more difficult”.

“Weak, worthless and subhuman”

Women and girls with disabilities are often considered weak, worthless and in some cases subhuman by their societies and consequently, face a heightened risk of domestic and sexual violence[5] or forced sterilisation and breaches of their reproductive rights. The International Committee of the Red Cross has reported that girls who had been disfigured by bombs or landmines, or were born with a disability, were often considered a burden on their families and communities[6] leaving them at greater risk of aggression. Similarly, according to UNICEF estimates, children with disabilities are up to four times more likely to experience violence.

Community perceptions that persons with disabilities are unable to physically defend themselves from a perpetrator or effectively report incidents of violence; lack of knowledge about gender-based violence and personal safety among women and girls with intellectual and mental disabilities means they may be more easily targeted by perpetrators. These perceptions are deeply rooted in stigma and discrimination, being seen as ‘easy’ targets, extreme poverty, social exclusion and isolation, loss of protective mechanisms and limited mobility or sensory ability. Disability-based violence is linked to this social stigma and the power imbalances between abled-bodied and disabled persons. Some communities viewing disability as a religious curse or divine punishment. Consequently, those with disabilities may be scorned or pitied, but are overall not considered as persons worthy of equal rights.[7]

Historic marginalisation

Sadly, due to historic marginalisation women with disabilities face, they may not feel it is their right to access emergency services or may lack the confidence to speak up for themselves and their needs In situations of civil or international conflict. The loss of assistive devices, caregivers, livelihoods and protection networks due to displacement make women and girls with disabilities more dependent on others and at greater risk of exploitation. The consideration of women with disabilities as being of a lesser worth has often meant they are left behind during efforts to flee from conflict areas or transitional territories increasing their risk of harm during emergency migration. The mobility of women with disabilities in conflict and crises can be ‘curtailed due to fears of abduction, rape or smuggling by human traffickers as well as violence in camps’.[8] Where there were assaults on women and girls with disabilities, they often went unreported when their families were too afraid of reprisals and dishonour to react. As was the case with girls with intellectual disabilities in Lebanon who were found to have been raped by militias in their area.[9]

Even in post-conflict circumstances, arguments have been made that women with disabilities are not consulted or given the opportunity to participate in building the rule of law and strengthening democracy during recovery efforts, and that all women are entitled to contribute to decision-making processes.[10] According to UN Women, women and girls with disabilities are also largely excluded from gender based violence prevention programmes, including the variety of women’s empowerment initiatives aiming to break the cycle of vulnerability to violence.[11]

Be it during periods of conflict or through post-conflict initiatives, there is a clear need for the legal capacity of women with disabilities to be given equal weight in their evidence. According to the UN Security Council, the perceived lack of credibility of women and girls with disabilities who have been victims of violence emboldens potential perpetrators with a since of impunity leaving them more vulnerable as a result.[12]

Independent offence

The International Criminal Court (the only permanent international court with jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for the international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression) expressed the importance of the participation of victims with disabilities during trials, as was outlined in the cases of Abd-Al-Rahman and the case of Yekatom and Ngaïssona in August and February respectively.

Arguments have gone further than the need for inclusivity in war crime trials of those with disabilities affected by conflict but rather, that the persecution of those with disabilities be a separate and stand-alone offence.[13] International humanitarian law is underpinned by the principle that persons who are not directly participating in hostilities must be protected and limits the means and methods of warfare that are available to the warring parties. As part of this protection, there is recognition that there are certain more vulnerable groups within civilian populations who are “entitled to special respect and protection,” including “the elderly, disabled and infirm”. These protections are outlined by Article 16 of the Geneva Convention IV and Article 8(a) of Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, both of which consider the need to care for and protect those civilians who are disabled. This entitlement to special protection strengthens the argument that should persons with disabilities be deliberately targeted during conflict, that their suffering should be prosecuted as a free-standing offence.

Christina Warner, barrister, Goldsmith Chambers


[1] Rohwerder, B. (2017). Women and girls with disabilities in conflict and crises. K4D Helpdesk Report. Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies

[2] The Right of Women and Girls with Disabilities to be Free from Gender-Based Violence, womenenabled.org

[3] Bond Disability and Development Group (2013), Submission to the International Development Select Committee Inquiry on Violence Against Women 2, Research Policy B

[4] Ibid 1

[5] Disability and Gender-Based Violence, ADD International, A Learning Paper

[6] Disabled women and girls are ‘doubly vulnerable’, aid groups warn, Lin Taylor, Thomson Reuters Foundation, 25 July 2018

[7]Ahmad, M. Can We Say They are also Beautiful? Disability is not a Curse, (December 2018) Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal, Volume 14, Issue 4

[8] An Introduction to Human Trafficking: Vulnerability, Impact and Action, UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Background Paper, 2008

[9] Conflict Related Sexual Violence, Report of the United National Secretary-General, S/2019/280, 29 March 2019

[10] Stephanie Ortoleva, Women with Disabilities: The Forgotten Peace Builders, 33 Loy. L.A. Int’l & Comp. L. Rev. 83 (2010).

[11] Violence against women and girls: the shadow pandemic, Statement by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, 06 April 2020

[12] Report of the Secretary-General, S/2015/203, 23 March 2015

[13] Disability and Armed Conflict, Alice Priddy, Geneva Academy Briefing No. 14, April 2019

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