Posted July 1997
||Special: Empowering the rural disabled in Asia and the Pacific|
Disabled women in rural areas of the region
Development Adviser, Canadian High Commission
Introduction | Women | Cambodia 1 | Cambodia 2 | Lao PDR
| Sri Lanka | Thailand 1 | Thailand 2 | Vietnam 1 | Vietnam 2 | Agroindustry | Horticulture | Strategies
Development practitioners are often in unison in recognising and proclaiming
that women comprise one of the various sub-groups within the genre of the
overall disadvantaged population in the developing countries. A myriad of
factors contributing to their 'most disadvantaged' position - a situation
of doubtful distinction- are identified. There are abandoned women, distressed
women, widows, separated and divorced women, assetless women, women heads
of households, illiterate women- the list is seemingly unending. It is revealing
that in this enormous list of sub-groups of the disadvantaged population,
seldom is any mention made of disabled women. Disabled women, therefore,
comprise one of the most neglected, if not almost totally ignored segment
of the population. The blindness, deafness and muteness regarding the existence
of, and problems encountered by disabled women, among those of us working
supposedly for the benefit of disadvantaged women at the grassroots, national,
regional or global levels, may be understood by reviewing data on the disabled.
It is necessary to understand clearly why and how disabled women are at
a greater disadvantage compared to disabled men. For both men as well as
women, disability becomes more of a disadvantage when compounded by low
socio-economic and educational status. Women in developing countries are
generally in a worse situation compared to men by these counts. Disabled
women, therefore, who are poor and illiterate are worse off than men under
same conditions. In the case of women the one factor where men are distinctively
better- off is in the area of socio-cultural set-up. In the context of majority
of Asian countries, women are assigned a low status culturally. Cultural
biases against women manifest themselves in preference for male children,
incidents of female infanticides and/ or foetal murders, higher malnutrition
among female children due to differential allocation of food among male
and female children, preferential treatment of male children in terms of
greater health care and access to education, dowry deaths and so on. Given
this biased cultural set-up, and given limited resources at the national,
community and household level in a developing country, it is considered
a bad investment to spend on educating a disabled girl child, adolescent
or woman and to rehabilitate them so that they can be integrated into the
community as productive and equal members.
Thus a disabled woman is left aside, isolated, marginalised, socially unaccepted
and neglected- an object of pity, and considered to be a burden barely borne
out of sheer humanistic obligations. The vulnerability of a disabled women
is multiplied manifold as she is mentally and/or physically unable to fend
for herself in the face of sexual harassment, rape or other forms of physical
Statistics: Where are the disabled?
There is hardly any data on the extent of the disabled population in recognised
sources of international data. The World Development Report, the Human Development
Report, the Asian Outlook- three major authorities on world level data published
annually by the World Bank, the UNDP and the Asian Development Bank respectively,
do not have data on the number of disabled persons in different countries.
The much proclaimed Human Development Index (HDI) has failed to include
this aspect of very real human misery. National level statistics are also
not collected or collated on a regular basis on the disabled. Apart from
a few sporadic and infrequently undertaken studies and surveys, data on
the nature and extent of disabilities is not available in most of the countries
of the Asia-Pacific region.The exclusion of data on the disabled amongst
a melee of other socio-economic and health indicators in itself brings to
the fore the marginalisation of the issue within the broad spectrum of concerns
relating to human resources development.
In this scenario of overall data gaps on the nature and extent of disability,
sex disaggregated data is even more difficult to obtain. So much so, that
disabled women remain invisible in the arena of planning and formulating
policies and programmes of poverty alleviation and development.
Data on the number of disabled, obtained through national surveys conducted
in several countries in the region is presented in Table 1. This data pertains
to different years and is being used in the absence of more recent data.
It is indicative of the magnitude of the disabled segment of the national
The data shows that the percentage of disabled adult population ranges from
1- 3 percent. This is consistent with estimates by ILO which state that
`4 percent of any working population are likely to have significant mental
or physical impairment'. Whereas according to WHO figures, 300 million or
10 percent of the population in developing countries are disabled and 3.5
percent are physically handicapped. The figures may be considered to be
consistent, considering that a significant percentage of the disabled comprise
children and youth.
Despite the constant cry for gender disaggregated data on all aspects of
human life, data on disabled men and women separately is not easy to find.
Nor is data available in readily usable form on the segments of the population
with specific disabilities. In order to ensure inclusion of gender concerns
into the issue of rehabilitating and integrating the disabled into the mainstream
of productive society, data on disabled women and their specific problems
and needs have to be collected and analysed through adequate and focussed
Number and Percentage of Disabled in the Population of the Asian Region
|Country ||Year ||Number/Percentage of Disabled Population|
||1985 ||10% of the population|
|Indonesia||1990 (est.)||300,000 handicapped children|
million are disabled. Among them, 8.7 million are children between 0-14
years, i.e. 41.3 million are disabled adults |
| Republic of Korea||1985||2.5%
of the population or 915,000|
|Nepal||-||3% of the population|
|Pakistan||-||10 million handicapped (4.6 million adults)|
Philippines||-||3.4 million disabled children |
of all primary school going children suffer from visual, speech, hearing
and motor problems |
|Vietnam||1989|| There are 1.5 million handicapped
children and youth |
| Source: Report
on the Tenth APEID Regional Seminar on Special Education, Japanese National
Commission for UNESCO and NISE |
It is important to differentiate between different types of disability
and their sources of origin. Some broad categorisations of disabilities
are based on whether they are physical or mental; congenital or acquired,
preventable or not, curable or non-curable and finally, according to the
degree to which the disabled can be effectively rehabilitated/ integrated
into productive society. If education and training/ rehabilitation and employment
programmes for the disabled are to be meaningful and sustainable , it is
imperative that these distinctions be considered consciously and data be
collected on a regular basis on the different types of the disabled.
Initiatives, albeit extremely inadequate, have been taken at the global,
regional, national and community levels to address the needs of disabled
men and women. Although some of these initiatives have recognised the need
for viewing the problem of disabled women separately, projects specifically
for disabled women are extremely limited and far between.
Initiatives for the disabled revisited
In recognition of the importance of focussing on the needs of the disabled,
the United Nations had declared 1981 as the International Year of the Disabled
Persons and 1983-1992 as the International Decade of Disabled Persons. Accordingly,
the World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons was adopted by
the UN General Assembly in its 37th Regular Session in December 1982. The
Programme of action called for promotion of disability prevention and rehabilitation
and equality of opportunities for disabled persons. The Programme of Action
defined rehabilitation as 'a goal-oriented and time limited process aimed
at enabling an impaired person to reach an optimum mental, physical and/or
social functional level, thus providing her or him with the tools to change
her or his own life. It can involve measures intended to compensate for
a loss of function or a functional limitation (e.g. technical aids) and
other measures intended to facilitate social adjustment or readjustment.'
Among other things, the measures referred to above were considered to include
Social, psychological and other types of counselling and assistance
training in self-care, including mobility provision of technical and mobility
aids and devices specialised educational services vocational rehabilitation
services (including vocational guidance) training placement in open/sheltered
In 1987, the Economic and Social Council of the Asia-Pacific (ESCAP) of
the UN, in collaboration with the Asia-Pacific Council of Disabled People's
International had convened a Regional Expert Seminar to Review Achievements
at the Mid-Point of the UN Decade of Disabled Persons. The Seminar identified
negative societal attitudes as a major impediment to the World Programme
of Action in the Asia-Pacific region. As a follow-up to this finding, ESCAP
has proclaimed 1993-2000 as the Asia Pacific Decade of Disabled Persons.
One aim of this initiative is to prevent disabilities and rehabilitate the
disabled within the community by creating a facilitating environment for
them so that they can be integrated and participate as equals with the able
Educating the disabled : Some pertinent issues
In the context of designing programmes for educating, training and employing
the disabled, it is necessary to understand the fine distinctions between
an impairment, a disability and a handicap. These distinctions were voiced
in the UN World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons as follows:
In developing countries, where the rate of unemployment and under-employment
is high, and resources are scarce, the scope of preventing or curing, either
partially or fully, and educating, training and rehabilitating the disabled
is limited. In the case of rural areas, with extremely limited levels of
awareness and physical facilities, this is more true. In the case of women,
the situation is most deplorable. For a rural or a rural based woman, therefore
an impairment almost invariably translates into a disability and a handicap.
There are other ways in which an impairment may become a handicap. A physical
impairment may lead to emotional distress which, in turn results in impairment
in mental abilities. Unacceptance by the mainstream society and marginalisation
may also lead to the disabled himself or herself, their family as well as
the community to view the disability to be synonymous with a handicap.
- Impairment: Any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological
or anatomical structure or function.
- Disability: Any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment)
of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered
normal for a human being.
- Handicap: Disadvantage for a given individual resulting from
an impairment or disability that limits or prevents the fulfilment of a
role that is normal depending on age, gender and social and cultural factors
for that individual.
Responses to the needs of the disabled have been undertaken in almost all
countries in the world at the national as well as private and non-governmental
levels. Curricula and training modules for the disabled have been designed
and used in special institutions as well as in normal schools as integrative
Five types of disabilities have been generally identified for purposes of
designing education and training programmes for the disabled, viz., mental
retardation, motor impairment, speech and hearing disability, visual impairment
and autism. The efforts of selected countries in Asia are mentioned below
The Department of Social Welfare under the Ministry of Social Welfare, Government
of Bangladesh, along with NGOs and voluntary associations provide services
for the disabled in the country. The Bangladesh Protibondhi Kalyan Samity
(the Bangladesh Association for the Welfare of the Disabled) is the only
association for all types of the disabled in the country. Besides, there
are associations for people with specific types of disabilities such as
the Bangladesh National Association for the Deaf,a Rehabilitation Institute
and Hospital for the Orthopoedically Disabled (RIHOD), run under the government
initiative. Some NGO efforts include provision of residential facilities
for poor children under treatment at the RIHOD.The Bangladesh Institute
for the Mentally Retarded (BIMR) is involved in rehabilitation of the mentally
retarded. There are also institutions for the paralysed. Schools for the
hearing and speech impaired and training and rehabilitation of the visually
impaired including sheltered workshops are run under both public as well
as private initiatives. For the visually impaired, there are 51 integrated
schools, out of which 47 are government-run and four are run privately.
Out of these 57, the integrated programme is operational in 42 schools.
The percentage of female students in these schools is very low. A survey
in these schools revealed that out of all 42 schools, only in one was there
50 percent participation of female visually impaired students. Out of 229
visually impaired students who have passed the Secondary School Certificate
examination, only 17 are females. Apart from a few NGOs addressing the needs
of the visually impaired, the needs of women in these special circumstances
are addressed inadequately.
It is ironic that although 87 percent of the disabled population live in
rural areas almost all the education and training institutions for the disabled
are located in the urban areas and almost exclusively address the needs
of urban and relatively well off people. In the rural areas of Bangladesh
girls without any impairments are not normally sent to school due to socio-cultural
taboos like 'purdah'. Even if such taboos are overcome, the physical constraint
in the form of inadequate transport facilities would render it almost unthinkable
for disabled girls and women to avail opportunities of education and training,
even if they were available in the rural areas.
There are four national institutes for the visually handicapped, speech
and hearing impaired, mentally handicapped and orthopaedic handicapped.
The problem of providing education and training to the population with speech
impairment, the mentally handicapped and those suffering from cerebral palsy
are acute due to resource constraint, both in terms of physical resources
as well as in terms of trained and motivated manpower.
Special education programmes are run for the blind, deaf and speech impaired,
mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed and socially maladjusted.
China has a hundred year history of Special Education (education of the
handicapped). The first national survey of the handicapped was conducted
in 1987. On the basis of the survey six categories of handicapped were identified:
the visually impaired, mentally handicapped, physically handicapped, emotionally
disordered and multiply handicapped. However, detailed data on the various
types of disabled population is not readily available. Moreover, combining
the categories of hearing and speech impaired renders it difficult to identify
the extent of the hearing and speech impaired separately. As a result, there
are no special schools for the speech impaired. Despite limited resources,
China aims to provide education for all handicapped persons by the year
2000 and integrate them with the mainstream population.
In the integrated schools which are run for the disabled, an additional
four years is allocated for the disabled. Vocational education is also imparted.
Special schools for the visually and hearing impaired and the mentally retarded
are run. However, these are extremely inadequate considering the population.
It has been estimated that 1.25 percent of the hearing impaired children
below 14 years are attending school.
It has been estimated that among the 10 million handicapped people in Pakistan,
the distribution between urban and rural areas is in the ratio 3:1. Out
of this figure, there are 1.1 million young people upto 20 years who need
education and training as well as employment opportunities. A survey conducted
in 1986 in Islamabad showed the breakdown of population with various types
of disabilities. According to the survey, the breakdown was as follows:
mentally handicapped 21%; visually impaired 15%; hearing impaired 9%; physically
handicapped 33%; multiply disabled 19% and other types of disabled 3%.
The Directorate General of Special Education has provided legislative support
to the disabled through the passing of an Ordinance in 1981. The Ordinance
has fixed a quota of 1 percent of employment for the disabled in all employment
agencies employing more than 100 persons. Other measures include exemption
of duty on import of motor vehicles and other equipment used by the disabled.
Various Acts and Codes have been formulated for the disabled. Special education
is provided to the visually and hearing impaired children. In the school
year 1990-91, 80,529 children were enrolled in public and private special
schools. Forty seven of them had autism.
The Republic of Korea
There are special schools separately for five types of disabilities: the
mentally retarded, visually impaired, hearing impaired, physically and health
impaired and for the emotionally disturbed. The ministry of education is
in charge of these schools where education is provided free of cost.
At present there are 26 special schools and 600 integrated special units
to cater to the needs of 10,000 disabled children although the population
of disabled children in Sri Lanka has been estimated to be 400,000. Most
of the disabled children are mentally retarded (75%) and therefore academic
under-achievers. There are 824 hearing impaired and 1202 mentally retarded
children in 89 special and 135 regular schools respectively. The number
of children with speech disorders, autism and multiple disabilities is negligible.
In addition to the special schools, special homes and institutions cater
to the needs of 300 mentally retarded and multiply handicapped children.
Teachers training courses are also provided. All the special schools operate
under the jurisdiction of the Special Education Unit (SEU) under the Chief
Education Officer. The SEU is also involved in policy formulation and coordination
with other government ministries. The National Institute of Special Education
(NISE) is responsible for training of the education personnel, research,
curriculum development and provision of consultancy services. The NISE faces
shortage of funds from local sources. This is a reflection of the low priority
accorded to the education of the disabled.
Educational institutions for the disabled in Thailand operate under both
public as well as private initiatives. There is only one institution for
the education of autistic children, the Child's Psychiatric Hospital. This
hospital accepts day and board children. It has been estimated that 4.5
children per 10,000 are autistic. The male: female ratio is 4.5:1. This
may be due to low incidence of autism among female children, but it could
also be due to reportage or low rate of help-seeking by female autistic
children. Data on other types of disabilities, e.g., cleft lip/palate, multiply
disabled are not available. There are no special institutions for children
with multiple disabilities. Some private institutions are coming up to meet
the needs of disabled children, albeit in a limited number, e.g., the Foundation
for the Mentally Retarded under the patronage of the Queen. The major problem
faced by both public as well private institutions is lack of funds.
Resource constraint and the extra cost involved in educating and training
as well as rehabilitating prevent NGOs and other similar organisations to
take up programmes for the disabled in rural areas. This is a myopic view
like all other programming exercises which are undertaken without considering
the felt needs of the people. Disabled women ( and men) who are not productively
employed and even those who are not able to perform their day to day activities
without the help of others impose a cost to their families and to society.
This cost should be weighed against the costs of providing training and
education to them.
Although resource constraints impede the provision of education to the disabled,
the major problem goes beyond this. It has its roots in attitudes and perceptions
of the mainstream society. There is widespread ignorance regarding the causes
of disability and the potential of disabled people to become productive
and self-reliant members of society. Acceptability of disabled children
, especially visually, speech and hearing impaired, motor disabled and mentally
retarded in general schools is extremely limited. Often, in fact, the difference
between mentally retarded and mentally disturbed or mad people is not made.
Thus, it is the attitudinal 'barrier' prevailing in the mind set of the
families of the disabled and the community which is the major impediment
towards making education and training for disabled accessible to rural women.
A legal provision for ensuring employment opportunities for the disabled
was given in the form of the Convention Concerning Vocational Rehabilitation
and Employment (Disabled Persons) (No. 159) passed by the International
Labour Organisation (ILO) in 1983. The convention provides for vocational
rehabilitation measures for all categories of disabled persons. It also
provides for equal opportunities for the disabled and general workers. Apart
from the fact that social justice calls for equalisation of opportunities
for disabled persons, from the economic policy of view, it is imperative
that the disabled are provided an enabling environment so that they can
participate in economic activities. It is also imperative that the disabled
person be integrated into the day to day activities of the household and
Attempts are being undertaken through Community Based Rehabilitation to
integrate the disabled with the mainstream of the society. Employment opportunities
for disabled rural women must be contextual to their socio-cultural set-up
in order not to further jeopardise their integration within the community.
At the same time there is need for community education to counter discrimination
and isolation of the disabled. Disabled persons should be the ultimate decision
makers in matters affecting rehabilitation. Therefore careful needs assessment
should be made taking into account gender differentials, custom, age, marital
status etc. In view of the paucity of data on employment of rural disabled
women, three institutions in Bangladesh were identified and their activities
in this field reviewed. These may safely be taken to provide a representative
picture of the situation prevailing in Bangladesh regarding the employment
of disabled rural women in the country.
Bangladesh Protibandhi Kalyan Somity (BPKS)
This is a non-profit, voluntary organisation the members of which are all
'persons with disabilities (PWDs).It was established in 1985 and subsequently
registered with the Ministry of Social Welfare and the NGO Affairs Bureau.
As of October, 1994 there were 1550 full members (both male as well as female)
spread across ten district branches. The organisation has used these branches
to form a network among PWDs in most parts of Bangladesh. BPKS has a general
body and an 11 member Executive Committee comprised of representatives from
each district branch. The Executive Committee, which runs the overall activities
of the organisation, is elected to office and thus ensures the participation
of grassroots level PWDs in decision-making and implementation of programmes.
BPKS is the only self-help organisation of the disabled in the country which
caters to the needs of all types of disabled. The staff comprise both disabled
as well as non-disabled persons in the ratio 51:49. Among the rehabilitation
and employment programmes for disabled women run by BPKS, there are two
tailoring training centres in Mymensingh and Chandpur. Every year thirty
female and male PWDs receive training on tailoring from each of these centres.
The trainers are also disabled women. During the training period, a stipend
is provided to the trainees.
As part of its Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) Programme, BPKS runs
two projects in Norshingdi and Jamalpur. Among other components, formation
of groups (cooperatives) with disabled and non-disabled members, savings
and credit activities for income generation are the main features of these
The branches are provided with technical and logistic support as well as
limited financial resources to undertake need-based programmes. The branches
also mobilise their own resources to undertake programmes for the local
Recently a Women's Group has been formed at the organisation comprising
12 members. This group is mandated to undertake programmes specifically
for disabled women. The group is headed by a physically handicapped woman.
BPKS also has a Job Placement Programme under which it motivates employers
in the government, private sector and NGOs to employ PWDs, provided they
have the qualifications. Since November 1988, 84 PWDs (male and female)
have been assisted in having a full-time job. Follow-up is also done to
help PWDs and their employers resolve problems during the service period.
Helen Keller International
This is an international NGO . It is an urban based NGO, but it provides
technical assistance for the education and rehabilitation of the blind.
It provides counselling services for blind children and their parents. It
also has Job Placement programmes. It provides training to NGOs for employing
visually impaired people. An attempt was made by HKI to route credit to
rural blind women through a local NGO so that they may undertake income-generating
activities. But the programme has been abandoned once it was found out that
the benefits of the programme did not accrue to the visually impaired rural
woman in a sustained manner. It was found that once the credit was repaid,
the capital equipment (for instance rickshaws) would be taken over by the
non-disabled male family members, without giving any returns to the disabled
female. HKI itself employs three visually impaired persons,out of whom two
Fellowship for the Advancement of the Visually Handicapped (FAVH)
This is a local NGO for the visually impaired. It runs a programme in Faridpur
under which blind men and women are trained in tailoring skills and in making
cane furniture. They are provided with funds at the end of the training
programme with which they may start up their own trades.
Bangladesh Deaf Women's Welfare Association
This is a relatively new association. It is also a voluntary, non-profit
organisation. It has emerged as a corollary to the Bangladesh Deaf welfare
association and is yet to be registered. However, the Bangladesh Deaf Welfare
Association is the largest national association for the deaf. This association
along with the association for deaf women is located in Dhaka. There are
four regional offices which provide a networking facility with the deaf
all over the country.The Deaf Women's Welfare Association provides training
in tailoring to deaf women. It has seven sewing machines and one embroidery
machine. A six-month course is run by two teachers. The women are given
transport and daily allowances. The Association has an executive body, the
member-secretary of which is a hearing impaired woman.
Agenda for future action
Although 70-80 percent of the disabled in developing countries, including
those of Asia live in rural areas, most of the programmes for the disabled
cater to the urban population. It is also evident that most of the programme
beneficiaries are men, inspite of the fact that many of them are 'gender
neutral' and may even have a female bias in traditional terms. Most of the
activities are related to self-employment or to employment in small and
cottage industries (eg., tailoring, cane furniture). For rural disabled
women, there seems to be a considerable potential for small industrial activities.
A necessary precondition to appropriate policy formulation and programme
strategy is availability of data. It is evident that there are considerable
data gaps. National census data should include data on disabled women at
sufficient levels of aggregation, (eg., rural-urban, male-female, age and
socio-economic groups). Data should also be disaggregated in terms of specific
types of disabilities. These data should be readily available to the relevant
Policies should consciously take into account the needs of the disabled.
There are examples of legislations passed at the international and national
levels for ensuring equal rights for the disabled to participate in formal
employment. Quotas can be set aside and enforced for employing disabled
persons. In countries like Bangladesh, the infrastructure for integrating
disabled women into economic activities exist in the form of a large number
of NGOs as well as public sector programmes spread throughout the rural
areas. These organisations and programmes have the manpower and the receiving
mechanism which can be used to provide training and credit services to the
rural disabled women.
Policies which can be formulated and implemented with relative ease are
those pertaining to creating an enabling environment for the disabled to
participate more fully in economic and social activities. Modifications
and provisions in building designs, in roads and modes of transport which
take into consideration the needs of the disabled can easily be ensured.
In Bangladesh, as a result of lobbying by the BPKS, the Building and Housing
research Institute under the Public Works Department has passed a resolution
to the effect that in future all government buildings will have provisions
so that the disabled may easily access them. Similar initiatives may be
undertaken for roads in terms of having audio traffic signals, among other
measures. Similarly, in the rural areas, special schools for the disabled
women may be located at convenient localities or the timings may be set
in accordance to the convenience of the women.
Equipment used by the disabled should be designed in such a way as to suit
the social and cultural setup within which the disabled person lives. For
instance, in designing artificial limbs, a woman's need for cradling a an
infant and feeding her and stooping to collect water or fuelwood must be
taken into consideration.
The most important issue for integration of the disabled in any society
is for the mainstream to act and live in conjunction with and not separately
from the disabled. For this, awareness regarding the nature of disabilities,
their causes and the potential ability of the disabled must be raised. Communication
skills of the non-disabled with the disabled could be enhanced by teaching
the basics of sign language in schools and through the media.
The disabled people have immense potentials which reman untapped. These
can be put to productive and profitable use to benefit the family, the society
and the country. It is said that a nation's development is also measured
by the ease with which it integrates the disabled into the mainstream society.
As a criteria of development, the issue of considering the disabled as a
neglected but extremely important sub-group of the population merits immediate
and continuous attention.
Empowering the rural disabled: Introduction | Women | Cambodia 1 | Cambodia 2 | Lao PDR
| Sri Lanka | Thailand 1 | Thailand 2 | Vietnam 1 | Vietnam 2 | Agroindustry | Horticulture | Strategies