In Central America, Women with Disabilities Confront the Pandemic
“Nothing about us, without us”
By: Jenny Domínguez, FCAM Program Officer
Interview in June, 2020.
The majority of Central American governments have taken a series actions to prevent COVID 19 and serve their populations in the face of the pandemic, including obligatory home quaratines, suspending public transportation, suspending classes in public and private schools, closing borders, providing food rations and economic support, as well as disseminating information on prevention of and attention to the pandemic, requiring – among other things – maintaining social distancing. Each of these public policy decisions vary across countries based on their needs and styles of government. However, they do not include the needs, voices and demands of those living with disabilities.
Under these circustamces, people with disabilities have had to take their own measures in order to follow government guidelines, given that the emergency public health situation has deepened discrimination, inequality and poverty that they have historically faced. It is necessary for governments to pay attention to and act upon this crisis with a focus on inclusion and gender.
Populations of people with disabilities often do not have stable employment, the majority carry out informal work earning daily subsistence. With restrictions on economic activities, many of these individuals do not have income and are facing home quarantines with scarce resources, increasing their dependence and vulnerability.
FCAM is in constant communication with organizations of women with disabilities throughout the region, and women from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have shared their reflections with us for this article.
The women that we spoke with assert that Central American governments have done little to incorporate the specific needs of people with different kinds of disabilities into their decisions. The majority of this population lives in situations of poverty, in rural areas, and with limited access to education, comprehensive health, dignified work, adequate information and access to technology.
“In the President’s speeches there is no mention of people with disabilities, with the exception of the first decree in which they only mentioned the support they would need for transportation. There are no specific efforts for blind women. In order to get support, you have to advocate and pass certain filters to access support from the government, but it’s not a sure thing. They do not mention women in general and much less women with a disability.” Member of Board of Directors of AMUCES (Association of Salvadoran Blind Women – Asociación de Mujeres Ciegas de El Salvador)
Under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, signed by all countries in Central America, people with disabilities enjoy full human rights, and therefore, in the process of serving the population during the COVID 19 pandemic, the government must make decisions that impact public health and ensure that all people can access means of prevention and attention.
To date, people with disabilities have not had adequate access to information about prevention of the disease. Neither health centers nor hospitals have sign language interpreters that can communication about the public health situation for deaf people. The majority of officials responsible for communicating information about government prevention and healthcare services do not use sign language interpreters, nor do they disseminate information in a way that is accessible for those that do not have access to the internet, cell phones, television and/or through adequate channels of communication for people that are deaf and blind, or those that cannot not read or write.
Another measure taken by governments was the suspension of in-person classes in public and private schools. Children with disabilities that do not have access to internet and/or computers are excluded from being incorporated into the education system that is today being provided in the digital realm.
Social distancing for people that are deaf, blind and/or have a psychosocial disability is an obstacle, because it means they cannot communicate about their needs, their wellbeing, or their emotional circumstances with their families, friends, caregivers. The absence of inclusive action is part of the constant human rights violations experienced by these populations, including the right to attention during crises and/or treatment for their emotional wellbeing.
Access to medicines is another of their main concerns, as many of these individuals are under medical treatment, and in many cases they live in areas far from health and rehabilitation centers. The lack of access to transportation and deficiencies in the services offered in health centers – coupled with a lack of income due to the suspension of economic activities – are factors that complicate fulfillment of their right to comprehensive health.
“This is a serious concern. We are facing stress, anxiety, headaches. This is killing us by tiny cuts, because we are alive and have our health, even though we experience other kinds of illnesses. Those of us that are wounded need support, at least medicines, because the pain we have from our injuries is not easy to deal with.” Member of the Salvadoran Association of the Wounded in Action (Asociación de Lisiados de Guerra de El Salvador, ALGES).
The suspension of public and private transportation has caused significant inconveniences for people with disabilities being able to purchase groceries and the medicines they need to care for their health needs. It also limits their access to packages of agricultural, economic and food support that governments are providing to face home quarantining.
Intrafamily violence and sexual violence experienced by women with disabilities continues to be a constant reality. In the majority of these countries there are no protocols for special services for women with disabilities that have faced acts of intrafamily and/or sexual violence. Confinement at home deepens the situations of violence in which many women and girls must cohabitate with their aggressors.
Organizations led by women with disabilities in Honduras comment that it has been difficult to organize around the demands of women with disabilities that have faced acts of violence, nor have they had the support of some of the other organizations from within the women’s movement.
In response to this context and their experiences, the organizations consulted for this article demand that their governments take the following measures to improve conditions for people with disabilities, and guarantee their right to comprehensive health and human rights in general:
- Create service protocols for people with disabilities during the quarantine and post-quarantine, with a gender and inclusion perspective that encompasses people with disabilities. These tools must recognize differential needs based on disability, sex, age, health status, location of residency, among others, and should incorporate emotional health services and training for health care professionals on best practices in serving this population.
- Guarantee comprehensive health and offer the necessary tools to access health services, including for women that live in remote areas outside of urban centers or close to health centers.
- Ensure that social protection measures and economic support include women and girls with disabilities.
- Promote accessible learning platforms and develop plans to reincorporate inclusive education after the emergency so that children and youth with disabilities can continue accessing their education.
- Provide accessible and clear information about health services and prevention during the pandemic, in formats that are accessible to those with disabilities.
- Ensure that services to respond to violence against women and girls is accessible for those with disabilities.
- Take into account the demands of disability organizations and incorporate them into decision making around pandemic prevention and response, from a gender and social inclusion perspective.
- Have clear processes in place to distribute government resources in response to the emergency. These should include specific items set apart for populations with disabilities.
Post-pandemic recovery actions must incorporate not only human rights, social inclusion and gender perspectives for immediate attention to populations that are historically excluded and vulnerable, but they must also tear down the foundations that perpetuate discrimination.
Leadership of women with disabilities in social movements is fundamental for demanding and guaranteeing human rights and for building peace, justice and democracy. As such, it is critical to recognize their struggles, achievements and challenges.
If each of us in our daily lives recognize ourselves as rights-holders, it would be easier to change our perspective and accompany these leaders in their struggle for social transformation.
There are no rights without action!
FCAM is grateful for the information provided for this article by the following organizations: Salvadoran Association of Blind Women (Asociación de Mujeres Ciegas de El Salvador); Salvadoran Association of the Wounded in Action (Asociación de Lisiados de Guerra de El Salvador; Progreseño Center for Disability Attention (Centro de Atención Progreseño a la Discapacidad), from El Progreso, Honduras; and Women with the Capacity to Dream (Mujeres con Capacidad de Soñar) from Sololá, Guatemala.