Opinions

Disabled Women: Our Bodies, Our Rights

Written by: Catriona Kirkpatrick, Development Manager, Engender
Black and white illustration of three women next to a banner saying 'equal rights'

Catriona talks about Engender Scotland's report looking at disabled women’s experience of sexual health, maternity and parenting services.

For the last two years Engender has been working on a project researching disabled women’s experiences of parenting and reproductive health services in Scotland.

Working with disabled people’s organisations in Scotland, the project saw us speak with disabled women across Scotland to hear about their experiences of puberty, sex education, relationships, family planning, maternity services, parenting support, and the menopause. Through consultation events, an anonymous survey, round-table discussions with practitioners, and focus groups led by the Scottish Learning Disabilities Observatory, we explored a huge range of issues relating to disabled women’s reproductive rights.

Throughout the project, women spoke of facing negative assumptions and stereotyping, the unfounded removal of children into care, forced terminations and sterilisation, and infantilising treatment — all of which impacted on their ability to make decisions about their relationships and family life. Our research shows that disabled women face huge barriers in the realisation of their rights in Scotland when it comes to sex, reproductive health, and parenting support in terms of both attitudes among service providers and the way in which services have been designed.

The report Our Bodies: Our Rights (this link will take you away from our website) highlights that disabled women’s rights are undermined by poor or non-existent sex and relationship education, inadequate training of practitioners, failures in service-delivery and design, and pervasive abuse and sexual violence faced by disabled women and girls.

The research is divided into the key areas of:

  • Parental Rights
  • Training and Education
  • Reproductive, Sexual and Maternal Health
  • Violence Against Women

At our conference on 6th November, where we formally launched the report, the attendees were shocked to learn that parents with learning disabilities are up to 50 times more likely to have children removed from them and placed in care. They were also appalled by the high levels of gender-based violence experienced by disabled women, with studies finding that disabled women are up to twice as likely to experience sexual and partner abuse as non-disabled women. As one participant said: “I can’t believe that things have not moved on in 20/30 years – that we are facing these issues in 2018. It’s not right.”

Our Bodies, Our Rights makes clear recommendations for the Scottish Government, service providers, and institutions for steps that can be taken to help realise the rights of disabled women.

As the Minister for Equalities and Older People Christina McKelvie MSP said at our conference, “All women have a right to good sexual and reproductive health care – achieving this is a key aspect of gender equality being reached, but we won’t achieve this unless all women, and this must include disabled women, receive quality care. Disabled women have the same right to be sexually active as every woman and so we must ensure that access to appropriate services, including family planning, sexual health, and abortion healthcare is available on an equal basis as for all women.”

Engender will be sharing its report with policy-makers and service providers and asking what steps they will be taking to address the issues raised in the report. We will be holding a follow-up event at the end of 2019 at which we can reflect on the actions undertaken towards the realisation of disabled women’s reproductive rights and progress towards our recommendations.

To find out more about Engender’s work with disabled women on Our Bodies: Our Rights, visit the Engender website (this link will take you away from our website) where you will find an audio version of the report and easy read version.

Alternatively, email Engender at info@engender.org.uk.

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