Disability Rights are Reproductive Rights

Susan Dunn

Program Manager, Mobility International USA

The fourth International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP) on January 25-28, 2016, in Nusa Dua, Indonesia calls for "Global Commitments, Local Actions.” The conference is co-hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the National Population and Family Planning Board of Indonesia (BKKBN).

In the opening plenary of the 2016 International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP), Melinda Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that “expanding access to the most marginalized” would be a new focus area in their global family planning investment over the next few years. I was thrilled to see such high level commitments being made to improving access for underserved and vulnerable groups. It quickly became a major, recurring theme at the ICFP as many sessions were devoted to sharing strategies and plans for reaching the urban poor, sex workers, refugee and displaced women, indigenous women, and especially youth.

Attendees at an ICFP session pose with a banner calling for inclusive family planning. (Photo: Suz Dunn)

Attendees at an ICFP session pose with a banner calling for inclusive family planning. (Photo: Suz Dunn)

Despite these priorities, I was surprised to find that inclusion of people with disabilities as a marginalized group seemed to be missing from many of the discussions. I was also concerned by the lack of participation and voice of disabled women at the conference, since I know that reproductive rights are such a critically important issue.

Women with disabilities face many unique challenges to accessing their rights. Reproductive health care is often denied to disabled women, because it is not considered right for them to bear children, they are not believed to be sexually active, or because the available services do not consider their particular access needs. With 500 million women with disabilities worldwide, the majority living in low- and middle-income countries, the goal of reaching the poorest of the poor in family planning interventions cannot be achieved without the participation and leadership of women with disabilities.

Mobility International USA (MIUSA) presented at the only session focused on disability issues. As was demonstrated in the standing room only session, there is significant interest and demand for information on disability inclusive family planning. Our session included a panel of five presentations on ground-breaking projects and research from different organizations.

On behalf of MIUSA, I shared the impact of the Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability (WILD), a program supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Leadership, Management, and Governance (LMG) Project. One outstanding impact of the WILD program has been empowering women with disabilities around the world to be leaders in the field of reproductive health. I shared my presentation time with Ekaete Umoh, an alumna of our WILD program and a leader with a disability from Nigeria. Ekaete shared her strategies and successes in promoting inclusive reproductive health programs in her country.

Our session concluded with a call to action for inclusive family planning. Workshop attendees acted on their commitments by joining a group photo holding a banner that read: “I support disability inclusive family planning interventions.” Similarly, the session’s moderator—a representative from the Gates Institute for Population & Reproductive Health—offered to share our message of disability inclusion with the ICFP organizing committee and leadership.

I found the ICFP to be a powerful platform with great potential to improve the lives of women and girls with disabilities, although there is still much work to be done to ensure disability inclusion is part of the mainstream reproductive rights agenda. The disability community and the family planning community must utilize this opportunity to engage in direct dialogue and form partnerships. Only by working together can we ensure that expanding access and inclusion to family planning reaches the most marginalized.