Around the world, more than 1 billion women and men and boys and girls are living with some form of disability.1 Although most people will experience disability at some point in their lives, understanding the meaning of disability and its impact on the ability of each individual to be active participants in social, economic, socio- cultural, and political life remains a challenge. Physical, social, and legal barriers continue to limit access to education, health care including sexual and reproductive health (SRH), employment, leisure activities, and family life for millions of persons with disabilities worldwide.2 These barriers can be most acute for young persons with disabilities.
Globally, an estimated 180 to 200 million persons with disabilities are between the ages of 10 and 24.3 Young persons with disabilities4 are like young people everywhere: They have dreams and ambitions, interests and desires, and hopes for their futures. But young persons with disabilities face persistent social disadvantages worldwide stemming from discrimination, stigma and prejudice, and the routine failure to incorporate disability into building policy, and programme designs. Physical, socio-economic, socio-cultural, and legal barriers continue to limit access to education, health care including SRH, employment, leisure activities, and family life for millions of persons with disabilities worldwide, and violence against young persons with disabilities is widespread.5
Persons with disabilities, including young persons with disabilities, are at greater risk of living in poverty than are their peers without disabilities.6 They are much more vulnerable to violence, including gender-based violence (GBV), and are less likely to attend school.
They receive too little information about puberty, sexuality, and healthy relationships, introducing new vulnerabilities to sexual exploitation and denying them the rights to live satisfying sexual lives, choose to be married, and have children.
A safe passage from childhood into adult life is the right of every person, including those with disabilities. But more than just having a right to safety, young people everywhere have the right to participate in their communities, to speak out and be listened to, to share in technological advancements and design them, to be creative, and to take the lead on matters that concern them. Full inclusion of young persons with disabilities means recognising that they too have the right to actively participate in society as equal members with the same rights and privileges as every other young person has.
Young persons with disabilities have been repeatedly recognised as rights holders in international agreements. The Programme of Action adopted in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo includes three objectives and associated recommended actions directly related to persons with disabilities. These objectives include: a) To ensure the realisation of the rights of all persons with disabilities and their participation in all aspects of social, economic, and cultural life; b) To create, improve, and develop necessary conditions that will ensure equal opportunities for persons with disabilities and the valuing of their capabilities in the process of economic and social development; and c) To ensure the dignity and promote the self-reliance of persons with disabilities.
The 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) recognises the rights of persons with disabilities of all ages to the full enjoyment of all human rights, including the right to equal participation in society and the right to live a life with dignity.
Likewise, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls on states to promote inclusive development that recognises the right of persons with disabilities to equal access to education and employment, among other things. It sets targets for state action to eliminate violence against all girls and women, including those with disabilities, and to ensure access to SRH services and education for all.
In the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the global community has committed to leave no one behind. To make this commitment a reality for young persons with disabilities, governments must invest in young people and ensure that young persons with disabilities have the opportunities, knowledge, and skills they need to live healthy, fulfilled, and productive lives.
Governments must also be proactive in identifying and removing the barriers that prevent young persons with disabilities from achieving their full potential. This report is an effort to assist governments in meeting this goal.
In 2016, recognising that young persons with disabilities are essential partners in efforts to create peaceful, more egalitarian societies worldwide, UNFPA, with financial support from the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID), and a host of partners launched the WE DECIDE programme to support women and young persons with disabilities to have their voices heard. As stated during the programme’s launch, ‘WE DECIDE is about amplifying the contributions of young people to peace, social justice and human rights, and in breaking barriers and stereotypes.’7
Young people are not only patients, clients, and beneficiaries of health services and programmes. Young people are providers, leaders, and advocates that can and will lead us to a healthier future. They are poised to design policies and programmes to meet their needs and those of their peers.8
To increase the visibility of young persons with disabilities to policymakers and advocates, UNFPA commissioned this study as part of the WE DECIDE programme. The study provides the following:
The study seeks to contribute to the strengthening of state laws and policies that foster social inclusion and gender equality for the benefit of young persons with disabilities, especially young women and girls with disabilities; to eliminate discrimination against them, particularly with regard to access to and enjoyment of SRHR and GBV prevention and response services; and to recognise and promote their right to be active members of society with the acknowledged capacity to make decisions on issues affecting them. The study also seeks to identify areas in which data are missing or insufficient and in which additional research would be valuable.
Empowering young people with disabilities with sexual and reproductive health and rights knowledge and information is one of the keys to change. –Aniyamuzaala James Rwampigi, former president of the African Youth with Disabilities Network
The intended audience includes relevant government entities, United Nations (UN) agencies, human rights advocates, and civil society organisations (CSOs) including disabled persons’ organisations (DPOs), women’s organisations, and youth organisations. Included in this audience are individuals working to ensure that young persons with disabilities, especially young women and girls with disabilities, can enjoy and access SRHR and GBV prevention and response services. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is the lead UN agency for delivering a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe, and every young person’s potential is fulfilled. As part of this mandate, UNFPA’s work on disability has focused on ensuring that women, adolescents, and youth are free of discrimination and violence and are empowered to make decisions regarding their SRH and life options. This study is intended to promote the human rights and social inclusion of young persons with disabilities, with an emphasis on access to services to prevent and respond to sexual violence and gender-based violence (GBV) along with access to and enjoyment of SRHR-related services, information, and education.