Interview with AAPD’s Julie Arostegui!
Julie Arostegui (JA) has been a Policy Advisor for the American Association of People with Disabilities in Washington, DC since 2011. In December, she traveled to Africa and shared her experiences and insight with USICD. Please visit USICD’s blog to see JA’s interview in its entirety!
USICD: When did you go to Africa and what countries did you visit?
JA: In December I was in Uganda and Rwanda, where I am working on a project studying the experience of incorporating international standards on gender equality and women’s rights into their post-conflict legal systems and working with groups there to address persistent issues around gender inequality and gender-based violence. In the coming months we will be using these best practices and lessons learned in the region to work with groups in South Sudan and Sudan as they are going through the post-conflict processes of writing their constitutions and legislation and establishing their justice systems.
USICD: Give us some examples of how the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was discussed in the countries you visited in Africa.
JA: Although my visit and work were not specifically related to disability or the CRPD, through discussions with stakeholders as well as my own observations I know that there is a focus on raising awareness of and implementation of the CRPD. In Uganda, for example, it is important especially in the north, which suffered conflict for more than 20 years. More than two million people were internally displaced, women suffered extreme sexual violence, and children were abducted as child soldiers. Some people still remain in IDP (internally displaced person camps). There are both women’s groups and disability groups working on the issue. Uganda ratified the CRPD in 2008, and the focus is now on implementation. While I was there I saw several organizations working on CRPD and disability issues, and noted several opportunities for funding to groups to help with implementation.
USICD: You have shared that you have an interest in issues of peace and security and women with disabilities. How did you develop this interest?
JA: My background is in international human rights law, and I have worked in various areas related to gender equality, women’s empowerment and gender-based violence, using human rights instruments and rule of law as a basis for empowerment, social justice and social transformation. My work with AAPD has been introduced me to the disability community and has also helped inform my gender work, especially in the area of women, peace and security, which focuses on the gendered effects of conflict, the importance of including women in all aspects of peace building and decision making processes, and the protection and promotion of women’s rights.
USICD: In your work with gender, conflict and sexual violence, what overlap do you see with disabilities?
JA: Unfortunately, there is a big overlap. As we know, any conflict results in wounded warriors. Today, there are an increasing number of women serving as combatants in various countries, and they like other veterans may face disabilities after being wounded in conflict. In addition, due to the nature of today’s conflicts, which tend to be more internal struggles that are often waged on civilians and not just against enemy armies, women also become disabled through the extreme brutality and sexual violence that is inflicted up on them. Their bodies have literally become battlefields.
Sexual violence is not only a problem during conflict but in post-conflict periods as societies are displaced, women continue to face insecurity, and domestic and gender-based violence increases in communities as men return and try to reintegrate into society. Women in general face discrimination and cultural barriers in many areas of the world, and women with disabilities tend to face double discrimination. The additional discrimination against women with disabilities makes them even more vulnerable to abuse and sexual violence.
USICD: How has conflict in these countries affected the framework related to the rights of women and people with disabilities?
JA: Although conflicts such as the decades long civil war in Uganda and the genocide in Rwanda have severely impacted communities and especially women and children, the post-conflicted periods have allowed vulnerable groups new opportunities to reshape systems and slowly begin to change society. After periods of internal struggles and serious human rights abuses these countries have seen the need to build more inclusive systems. Uganda, for example, in developing its 1995 constitution, went through a multi-year process of consultations throughout the country that reached out to all groups including people with disabilities. The result is a constitution that recognizes human rights and the rights of vulnerable populations, including people with disabilities, as does the Constitution of Rwanda.
USICD: What issues do you think women with disabilities share in common with men with disabilities in Africa?
JA: Although legal protections may be in place, they are not always adequately enforced, and there continues to be social stigma associated with disability. There are still issues of accessibility in many places, and both men and women with disabilities face employment barriers and lack of access to adequate healthcare and supports for independent living. Developing countries have limited resources and establishing adequate healthcare systems and social services can be a challenge. People with disabilities have greater needs than the general population, lending even more challenges to already stretched resources.
USICD: How has the CRPD affected women with disabilities in Africa?
JA: As an international human rights law advocate, it is interesting to compare experiences here in the U.S. with those of other countries. As we know, here in the U.S. international human rights treaties such as the CRPD are hotly debated. There are people who do not believe in international treaties and/ or oppose the United Nations. They view the treaties with suspicion. However, in countries such as those in Africa which have recent histories of colonization, being able to take action as independent states, and be members of regional bodies and international organizations such as the UN is important and they take their obligations seriously.
The CRPD is important because countries that have ratified it are obligated to bring their laws in line with the international standards contained in the treaty. The U.S., although it has not ratified the CRPD, has been a leader in disability, but many countries, especially developing and conflict-affected countries, have lagged behind. Countries such as Rwanda and Uganda that have signed the CRPD must review their legislation related to accessibility, healthcare, employment, political participation, participation in community life, etc. in order to ensure that it is in line with CRPD requirements. They have been doing so. Although there are challenges to institutionalization and implementation, there have been advances in law, policies and services for people with disabilities. The CRPD is an important tool for women with disabilities to advocate for their rights and hold their governments accountable for fulfilling their obligations.
USICD: What do you see in the future for women with disabilities in Africa?
JA: As with all issues that require legal reform and social change, real transformation in the lives of women with disabilities will take time. However, given the increasing recognition of the importance of including the voice of not only women, but women with disabilities, in all processes, the growing strength of civil society movements, additional tools such as the CRPD and other human rights instruments, and growing awareness, I think that now is the time that women can really make progress, and hopefully women with disabilities will be a part of that progress.