This blog is written by CBM Australia Senior Advisor of Program Development, David Brown, who accompanied a delegation of Australian politicians on a learning tour to Cambodia from 17 to 22 January 2016. The delegates visited a range of development and humanitarian agencies to see firsthand the type of projects supported by the Australian government’s aid program.
Phnom Penh is a city of two million people. It is the centre of Cambodia’s growth projects – its housing and construction boom, and the face of Chinese investment in new townships and large casinos. The normal daily scene would leave an Occupational Health and Safety officer in Australia pale – two men ride by on a motorbike, the passenger carrying a three metre ladder, at high speed a helmetless adolescent weaves in and out of SUVs, tuk-tuks, bikes and pedestrians – watched by a group of three men in wheelchairs who lost limbs to landmines placed during the terrible internal conflict of more than thirty disability, years ago.
Cambodia has reportedly the largest percentage of population with a disability in South East Asia – and the rapid growth in access to motorised transport without safe infrastructure means that road traffic accidents now account for more than 10 times the physical impairments still occurring through unexploded landmines.
I’m here with a delegation of six lower and upper Australian parliamentary house members. They are visiting as part of a Gates Foundation grant to enable Save the Children to set up a series of visits with development and humanitarian agencies supported by the Australian Government’s aid program, of which CBM Australia is one.
Since 2010, CBM Australia has partnered with the Cambodian Development Mission for Disability (CDMD), with funding support from the Australian Aid Program. CBM Australia supports CDMD to provide a comprehensive and empowering approach to disability inclusion in Cambodia across five provinces, and supports more than 140 Self-help groups of people with disability and their families.
Participation in CDMD Self-help groups leads to positive psychological and economic changes, as well as increased household incomes for people with disability. And this is what the delegation is coming to see.
The plastic chairs have been covered with brightly coloured material – a normal custom for weddings and other important events in Cambodia. Even some old electric fans are wheeled in to keep the politicians comfortable – and the normal offerings of drink and fruit are generous. Everything is set as the Australian politicians arrive at a commune outside of Phnom Penh.
The visit aims to set the context in which Cambodian people with disability live and the ongoing challenges related to income, access, participation and rights. Also, it aims to give a glimpse of the kind of ongoing community work led by CDMD and its committed staff and volunteers.
The Self-help Group of 12 women and men are part of CBM-partner CDMD’s network of empowering people with disability to problem solve and support each other in finding solutions to the challenges they face in their lives. Also present is the Vice-President of the Commune – a local politician – and the Australian politicians congratulate him for his response to meeting some of the needs of people with disability.
After we give a contextual overview of challenges facing the broader population of people with disability in Cambodia, the delegation hear the personal stories of three group members who had benefited through increased commune support and loans to assist in livelihood activities: small businesses and chicken farms amongst others.
A CDMD volunteer advocate, Chenda, gives a very moving account of her own commitment to changing attitudes, looking for greater educational opportunities, and the promotion of rights for all people with disability.
Chenda was born blind, as was her younger brother, and through the encouragement of her family and support from organisations such as CDMD and Handicap International, she was studying psychology at the Royal Phnom Penh University. Through working as a disability rights advocate, she has learnt much about engaging with authorities, and her speech is a great indication of her skill. She is extremely diplomatic but also able to communicate clearly the challenges of access to education and to fulfilment of rights.
“You gave a really inspiring talk. Thanks so much”. A group of women politicians gathered around Chenda to congratulate her on her part in the meeting.
I was very impressed with this delegation – the politicians sat patiently during the translations and listened respectfully. They asked intelligent questions and seemed to genuinely try to fit this scene from semi-rural Cambodia and the Self-help group’s stories into a way of thinking about the Australian Aid program. The constant movement of chickens and the local itinerant salesmen’s tuk-tuk loudspeakers provided a dose of reality that seemed to be appreciated by all. And their words of thanks and appreciation – particularly to Chenda and to the commune’s vice-president – were very sincere and heartfelt.
In 2015, CDMD with the support of CBM Australia and funding support from the Australian Aid Program, changed lives by:
- 12,271 people with disability referred to health services
- 339 children with disability enrolled in school
- 542 people with disability improved their income through livelihood schemes, vocational training and participation in Self-help groups
- 51 non government organisations and commune councils integrating disability inclusion into development plans
- 274 awareness-raising events
Politicians who attended as part of the delegation included:
Mr Dan Tehan MP
Ms Gai Brodtmann MP
Senator Linda Reynolds CSC
The Hon Darren Chester MP
Ms Lisa Chesters MP
Ms Sharon Claydon MP
Thank you to Save the Children and the Gates Foundation for making this visit possible.
Rachel Wallbridge is an Advocacy and Policy Officer at CBM Australia and has a particular interest in gender issues.
Preventing and addressing violence against women and girls as well as their empowerment and participation is a topic that has always been very dear to my heart, and last year it took me to work with a Pan-African NGO in Ghana, West Africa. While I was somewhat prepared for facing gender challenges, what I saw with women and girls with disability was something I was not prepared for.
Globally, violence against women is an epidemic and ending it will require all the will, drive and savvy political manoeuvring leaders and local activists can muster. Yet violence against women and girls with disability remains a brutal and silent barrier to the fulfilment of human rights. The impact of sexual abuse and violence against women and girls with disability remains to be adequately acknowledged and discussed in many mainstream gender discussions, at both a local and international level. For example, most of the highly publicised and hashtagged Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London failed to meaningfully acknowledge the unique threats facing women and girls with disability.
Women and girls with disability are often at greater risk of violence, injury, abuse, neglect, maltreatment or exploitation. Violence against women and girls with disability not only causes physical, psychological and social pain, but it’s also a significant barrier to a woman or girl with a disability meaningfully contributing to and participating in family and community life.
The facts are sobering. Women with a disability are two to three times more likely to be physically or sexually abused than women without a disability. Women with disability are also most vulnerable to abuse in their own homes, and women with an intellectual disability are particularly at risk and are also less likely to seek refuge or access redress than women with physical impairments.
Although women with disabilities experience many of the same forms of violence all women experience, the intersection of gender and disability means that violence takes on unique forms, has unique causes, and results in unique consequences. For example, people with disabilities can experience abuse such as withholding essential care and medications. Other abuses include physical, physiological, sexual or financial violence, neglect, social isolation, entrapment, degradation, detention, denial of health care, and forced sterilization and psychiatric treatment.
Women with disability face additional barriers to justice that can magnify the effects of abuse and violence. Firstly, it can be more difficult for women with disability to leave a violent or abusive situation. This could be due to being care-dependent on the abuser, not being able to take children with her, inaccessible support services and transportation to leave, being physically unable to implement an escape plan or the inability of a shelter or support service to adequately provide for her daily needs. Secondly, discrimination through the justice system means that women with disability may not be considered as reliable reporters or witnesses of crimes. In addition, prevailing social stereotypes may mean that women with disability can be dehumanised or excluded from the services.
It is important to also understand how violence and sexual abuse against women, including girls, can also be a cause of disability. For example, in the Kup region of Papua New Guinea, it has been reported that rape against young girls has caused serious injury and disability.
An important related issue magnifying the impact of sexual violence and abuse against women and girls with disability is the inaccessibility of sexual and reproductive health care. Ignorance and attitudes from both the community and individuals (including health care professionals) represent one of the main barriers for women accessing this type of health care. Society prejudices often assume women with disabilities are ‘asexual’ and are unable to manage their own sexuality and fertility. This stigma and discrimination then affects the access, level and availability of sexual and reproductive health services.
Current protections and solutions
A rights-based approach uses human rights principles and conventions as guiding frameworks, and views people with disabilities as rights-holders as opposed to passive beneficiaries. Like all people with disability, women and girls are protected under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD). The UNCPRD in Article 6 acknowledges the intersection of gender and disability, saying “state parties recognize that women and girls with disabilities are subject to multiple discrimination, and in this regard shall take measures to ensure the full and equal enjoyment by them of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The convention also includes a specific prevision on the elimination of all forms of exploitation, violence and abuse, including their “gender-based aspects.”
While the human rights of women with disability are protected under the UNCRPD, implementation remains a significant barrier. Attitudes and social stigmas present the largest barrier yet to the fulfilment and enjoyment of all human rights for people with disability. Women and girls with a disability face a triple threat: being female, having a disability and being amongst the poorest of the poor.
A human rights approach to this issue will ensure that services including education and health are disability inclusive. This is done through a twin-track approach where disability is both mainstreamed throughout regular services as well as creating disability specific interventions that aim to increase the empowerment and participation of people with disabilities. A focus on disability inclusive development positively impacts those with disability as it helps work towards lowering the stigma and discrimination faced by people, including women.
The development of entire communities is dependent on the recognition and fulfilment of human rights of its entire people. Individuals and communities who perpetrate violence against women and girls with disability not only directly risk the health and lives of the women and girls within them, but also prevent the community from reaching its full potential.
 United Nations (2006) Convention on Rights of Persons with Disability, Preamble, Retrieved from http://www.un.org/disabilities/convention/conventionfull.shtml
 United Kingdom Department for International Development (2000) Disability, Poverty and Development at http://www.handicap-international.fr/bibliographie-handicap/4PolitiqueHandicap/hand_pauvrete/DFID_disability.pdf
 Stephanie Ortoleva and Hope Lewis (August 2012) “Forgotten Sisters – A Report on Violence Against Women with Disabilities: An Overview of its Nature, Scope, Causes and Consequences,Northeastern University School of Law Research Paper No. 104-2012, 16.
 United Nations Population Fund (2013) A Deeper Silence and Pacific Sisters with Disabilities, 18.
 Ortoleva and Lewis (2012) “Forgotten Sisters,” 14.
 United Nations Population Fund (2013) A Deeper Silence, 19.
 Pacific Sisters, 19.
 Pacific Sisters Report, 17.
 World Health Organisation and United Nations Population Fund Guidance Note, “Promoting Sexual and Reproductive Health for Persons with Disabilities” 2009, 1.
 Spratt, A Deeper Silence, 18.
 Key conventions include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
 UNCRPD, 2006, Article 6(1).
 CRPD, 2006, Article 16: Freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse.