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India's 72 Years of Independence: A Look at Women with Disabilities and Their Fight for Self-Reliance

India has 1.8 crore women with disabilities and while government and civil society has been making efforts to improve their condition, the pandemic has spelt doom for several women after the coronavirus pandemic | Image credit: Reuters (representational)

India has 1.8 crore women with disabilities and while government and civil society has been making efforts to improve their condition, the pandemic has spelt doom for several women after the coronavirus pandemic | Image credit: Reuters (representational)

Despite the government's efforts to achieve total self-reliance this Independence Day, the reality of Indian women with disabilities remained "neglected and forgotten".

As the country celebrates its 72nd Independence Day, the government has been focusing much of its energies on teaching the importance of self-reliance to Indians as a way of fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

But for many of the nearly 1.8 crore million women with disabilities living in India, self-reliance is still a distant dream. And with the coronavirus pandemic forcing women with disabilities into their homes, there seems to be no way out.

While the lockdown has been hard on millions of Indians, experts claim that the experience of many disabled women, especially for those in the informal sector in both urban as well as rural and semi-rural India has worsened. Not only has the lockdown affected the livelihoods among households of persons with disabilities due to job loss, but the crisis has also led to a curtailment of access of disabled persons to essential services like education, healthcare, and even food.

No access to essentials

Disability and human rights activists have for years been seeking improved access for persons with disabilities. And while activists agree that the concerted efforts of civil society had been working and eventually translating into policy changes, many admit that the coronavirus pandemic had undone years of work.

"I have been stuck at home for nearly six months now since the lockdown," Nidhi Goyal, founder and Executive Director of the not-for-profit NGO Rising Flame, tells News18. Being visually impaired, 32-year-old Goyal has had to rely heavily on her own family and privilege in order to get essentials since March 24 when India went into a sudden lockdown.

"But for thousands of underprivileged disabled women stuck at home or alone with abusive or unresponsive family members, there is no way to achieve self-reliance," Goyal says.

A survey conducted by Rising Flame in collaboration with other disability rights organisations such as Sightsavers asked 82 women from across 19 Indian states about their experiences since lockdown and found that a majority of them had been facing increasing challenges when it came to crucial areas like access - be it to education, healthcare, employment, and safety. 75 of the respondents claimed they faced discrimination and reduced access.

According to Goyal, the problem arose due to the lack of understanding or sensitivity when dealing with the needs of persons with disabilities.

"Wearing face masks is essential for preventing the spread of COVID-19. But what about deaf women who can only communicate through reading lips? How will they communicate with essential workers such as chemists when no one knows sign language?" Goyal asks.

Public healthcare not inclusive

Several women with hearing impairment who were surveyed for the report said that they faced issues understanding government advisories on coronavirus due to the lack of inclusiveness of the messages. A deaf woman from Delhi reported that she only found out about the coronavirus pandemic as well as lockdown and all precaution measures, not from government advisories but from ISH news - a platform dedicated to hearing-impaired persons.

While the Arogya Setu app has been made mandatory for all persons and the government's go-to app when it came to dissemination of COVID-19 advisories and messages, several visually impaired women complained of the app being uninclusive.

A shadow pandemic

While the coronavirus pandemic has been spreading across the world, women's rights activists across the world have been drawing attention to the "shadow pandemic" that had also been growing alongside the coronavirus as a byproduct of the pandemic - domestic violence against women.

According to Goyal, whose NGO works for disabled persons facing harassment or abuse at home, the number of SOS calls regarding an increase in cases of violence faced by women with disabilities has increased over the lockdown. And no one was talking about it.

While the lockdown has led to an increased rate of domestic violence against women across the world including non-disabled women, Goyal feels that the pandemic has made it even harder for disabled victims to report such cases or seek redressal. And even if they are able to report a case, there is often no justice.

The problem lies in the understanding of what abuse and violence mean when it comes to women with disabilities.

"In most cases, violence faced by disabled women such as women using wheelchairs or needing constant assistance at home is not even counted as violence if it does not include physical assault," Goyal says. Having worked on several cases where victims have been denied medicines or even food by their essential caregivers, the activist says that it was hard to redress many of these crimes as they did not fall under domestic abuse. In some instances, victims have been locked up for days. "Yet no law specifically addresses these forms of abuse as violence," Goyal said.

No social protection

The coronavirus pandemic has also affected an important factor that affects the lives of women with disability - social capital and state ensured social protection.

Disability rights activist Amba Salelkar feels that persons with disabilities in India still did not get guaranteed social protection. While the government had worked out certain cash transfer schemes in order to help people with disabilities amid the coronavirus pandemic, Salelkar felt that was important to ensure that efforts were made to build the social capital of women with disabilities.

"Self-reliance, to me, is the ability to have choice and control over one's life. And for most women with disabilities in India, social capital is the only way to achieve choice and control," Salelkar tells News18.

This social capital is ensured by social protection schemes by the government at central and state levels and that ensure that persons with disability are not left behind when it comes to education, healthcare, and other civic amenities. Thus the only way for women with disabilities to achieve self-reliance is by ensuring social protection that enables them to create social capital.

The Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disability which comes under the Ministry of Social Justice and Welfare received much praise after it released a Comprehensive Disability Inclusive Guidelines to ensure protection, safety and delivery of essential services of persons with disabilities to fight Covid-19.

The guidelines, however, miss out on major aspects of social protection such as disability-specific guidelines for inclusive online education. Activists have also complained that despite the robust Right to Persons with Disabilities Act that the government enacted in 2016, not much has been done in terms of collecting specific data on the exact numbers of persons with disabilities and an analysis of the same through a gender lens.

Like the name of the report by Rising Flame suggests, despite the government's efforts to achieve total self-reliance this Independence Day, the reality of Indian women with disabilities remained "neglected and forgotten".

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