UNFPA meeting in Colombo notes discrimination of people with disabilities

People with disabilities are amongst the most marginalized groups when it comes to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services.

Even when health services are physically accessible, women and young people with disabilities may face financial, social, and psychological barriers to accessing adequate SRH services.

However, persons with disabilities have a greater need for comprehensive sexuality education and care than persons without disabilities due to their increased vulnerability.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) brought together experts from the fields of medicine and sociology for a panel discussion today, as part of the 9th International Conference on Birth Defects and Disabilities in the Developing World.

The panel discussion titled “Addressing birth defects from the lens of Human Rights & Inclusion,” focused on human rights and a gender equality angle to disability and birth defects.

Delivering the welcome remarks, UNFPA Representative in Sri Lanka, Ms. Ritsu Nacken, said, “One billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability. In order to achieve the SDGs, we need to ensure that persons with disabilities have equal access to services, including SRH services, and are able to exercise their rights fully. They must be active agents of change and part of our collective journey towards an inclusive, just and sustainable society.”

In May 2008, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities came into force and Sri Lanka ratified the Convention in 2016. This was the first legally binding international treaty on disability. It specifically mentions the rights of people with disabilities to access sexual and reproductive health services. However, these services are often inaccessible to persons living with disabilities for many reasons including physical barriers, stigma and discrimination. Sexual and reproductive health services have been largely overlooked in policy, planning and service delivery by social, legal, health and welfare services.

Professor Subhangi, Professor in Sociology at the Department of Sociology, University of Colombo, highlighted that “The ignorance and attitudes of society and individuals raise most of these barriers – not the disabilities themselves. People with disabilities cannot be generalized as one group, and one-size-fits-all solutions do not work for everyone. Their needs are diverse. For example, people with intellectual disabilities are further marginalized because most services focus on people with physical and visible disabilities.”

Prof. Athula Kaluarachchi, Senior Lecturer in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo discussed the importance of providing equal reproductive health services to people with birth defects and disabilities. “Just like everyone else, people with disabilities should be able to enjoy a sexual life as well as have children if they wish. They must have equal access to family planning and antenatal care among other things. It is imperative that the service providers keep in mind their responsibilities towards people with birth defects and disabilities when planning and implementing reproductive health programmes.”

The panel also included Dr Shyamani Hettiarachchi, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Disability Studies, Faculty of Medicine, University of Kelaniya. The panel was moderated by Janitha Rukmal, disability rights activist and the Co-founder of Enable Lanka Foundation. The discussion provided a platform for open dialogue between policy makers, health professionals, academics, civil society, media, and other stakeholders, as it explored Sri Lanka’s progress and the way forward in relation to inclusion and the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development.

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