Still left behind: Pathways to inclusive education for girls with disabilities

10 July 2017

By Nora Fyles and Ola Abu Alghaib

Almost 15 years ago, Harilyn Rousso asked:

‘In light of the international commitment to Education for All (EFA), how are girls with disabilities faring?’

Her findings from 2003, were not very positive.

She found:

‘The most formidable barrier to education equity for girls with disabilities may be their invisibility.

‘They are not on the radar screen of either those committed to educational equity for girls — because as a rule, girls with disability are not included in their work — or those committed to equity for children with disability, for in their case, gender is not considered’

What is surprising and disturbing is how little progress has been made.

In general, girls‘ education is seen to be one of the greatest success stories of the MDGs. More girls are in school and learning than ever before. However, the same cannot be said for education for disabled girls.

Disabled girls remain among the world’s most marginalised groups. Moreover, based on a recent study, conducted by Leonard Cheshire Disability and the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative (UNGEI), disabled girls continue to be largely overlooked in education dialogue and practice.

Our report, Still left behind: Pathways to inclusive education for girls with disabilities (PDF), explores many of the same questions as those raised by Ms. Rousso, with an aim to understand the current landscape of education for disabled girls.

What commitments have we made to providing quality education to disabled girls? What is working to ensure disabled girls do not remain invisible? What will it take to ensure disabled girls start school with their peers, remain in school and learn?

1. Policies and international frameworks — the global picture

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), with a guiding theme of  ‘leave no one behind’, embrace both gender equality and inclusive education as core commitments. SDG four calls on governments to ‘eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education ... including persons with disabilities‘(4.5).

From the perspective of international conventions, we are well covered. The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) confirm the rights of women and girls to education, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) confirms the rights of children, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) covers the rights of persons with disabilities.

Yet across all these commitments, disabled girls fall between the cracks while at the same time experiencing discrimination based on their gender, age and disability.

2. Barriers experienced by disabled girls in accessing education

In fact, data on the experience of disabled girls is very limited, so knowledge is sketchy at best. What we do know is, like their non-disabled sisters, disabled girls face deep structures of gender inequality in school, in the family and in society in addition to negative social norms associated with disability.

This leads to — among other issues — low expectations of their ability to make use of education; a higher risk of gender based violence in and around schools; and fewer opportunities than boys to occupy space and influence class discussions. While the lack of separate and functioning toilets presents a challenge to all adolescent girls, those with disability face additional hurdles where restrictive physical space and the lack of support makes the management of menstruation at school almost impossible.

Misunderstanding and discrimination leads teachers and community members to perceive disabled children and especially girls — as lacking intelligence and having limited chances to work. Less value is therefore placed on their education. In fact, families may hide disabled girls at home for fear and shame, and schools may refuse to accept them.

Gender bias can also mean disabled girls are less likely to have access to rehabilitation and assistive devices, making them ever more dependent on family members for school transport.

3. Programme interventions supporting disabled girls into education

Across the 20 organizations in our study, certain features were common, including community sensitisation on gender and disability, child protection mechanisms and teacher training. In Kenya, Leonard Cheshire Disability is employing Community Resource Workers as advocates working directly with schools, families and communities, building good relationships with families to assuage their fears concerning the safety of their daughters.

In Sierra Leone, AbleChild Africa uses a child-to-child approach, and in Uganda, Sightsavers employs radio appeals to promote the participation of girls and young women in school and skills training. Plan International seeks to address School Related Gender Based Violence by strengthening child protection measures, with trained volunteer child officers and school based counselling departments.

A child helpline in Uganda, and accessible complaint boxes with community feedback mechanisms in Sierra Leone, also aim to counter bullying and school related gender-based violence. Other agencies focused on strengthening teachers with skills and material for inclusive and gender sensitive teaching and learning. A most important lesson from our review the critical need for additional research, monitoring and evidence building

4. Moving forward: towards educational inclusion for disabled girls

Several key strategies and opportunities, which have the potential to profoundly improve access to education for disabled girls, include:

  • Targeted investment — donor and national governments must take the lead to improve access to educational opportunities for disabled girls, through investment. DFID’s Girls’ Education Challenge Fund is an example of targeted investment in this area, dedicating 15% of funds reserved for project designed for disabled girls.
  • Evidence building — while the Still Left Behind report provides examples of gender responsive inclusive education programming, the report identifies as many gaps as in evidence as findings. There is a significant need for further disaggregated data and research into the very specific barriers to education faced by girls with disabilities to better understand the interaction between gender and disability, and design effective policy and programming.
  • Greater efforts to embed gender responsive approaches — gender sensitive teachers with the knowledge of inclusive approaches are essential for breaking down attitudinal barriers and improving social and learning outcomes both in and outside of the school environment.
  • Greater collaboration between disability and education sectors — Collaboration and partnership is indispensable to bring all relevant expertise and knowledge of what works to ensure greater impact for girls in the classroom.

We have much more work to do if we are to improved education outcomes for disabled girls. But there is significant space for making huge gains.

The SDGs provide a new vision and specific global commitments related to both gender equality and to addressing the needs of disabled children. With this, we have greater opportunity to build the evidence towards what works in education for disabled girls, the first strides toward ensuring equal and meaningful access to education for all including disabled people.

Nora Fyles is the director of the secretariat for the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), a multi-stakeholder partnership committed to improving the quality and availability of girls’ education and contributing to the empowerment of girls and women in and through education.

Ola Abu Alghaib is the deputy director and head of policy influencing at Leonard Cheshire International.

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