Convention on International Day of Persons With Disabilities

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Washington, DC
December 3, 2010

I am so sorry that I cannot be with all of you to join you in this observance of International Day of Persons with Disabilities. But, I would nevertheless like to offer my own words of welcome to this important conference, and I wish you the best in your discussions. The issues of HIV/AIDS and disability, violence against women and girls with disabilities, these issues are all too often ignored. I was so pleased to learn then that they would be a focus of today’s conference.

As you know, the Secretary has been such a strong supporter of the issues relating to persons with disabilities, and this Administration is committed to the inclusion of people with disabilities across our international agenda. We are so pleased to have welcomed Judith Heumann to this effort as the Special Advisor for International Disability Rights. Judy and I have known each other for a long time, and I am excited to be working alongside her as we seek to ensure that the issues of gender and disability are effectively addressed in our country’s foreign policy. We could not have a more committed leader than she is.

Estimates say that one in ten people in the world lives with one or more disabilities. For 650 million people disability is not merely a term, it is a determinant of their quality of life. Now while many people are born with disabilities, many more acquire their disabilities throughout the course of their life. This may be due to lack of access to adequate healthcare, nutrition, clean water, sanitation, or housing. Lacking these basic necessities threatens a mother’s ability to safely carry her child to term. It can negatively impact a boy or girl’s ability to develop physically and cognitively. It can cause a productive citizen to fail to effectively heal from disease or accidents. And there are the millions of people who must overcome the results of the violence they have experienced.

So many of these causes are preventable – they are tied to human action or in some cases inaction. There is a great responsibility for the global community -- for each and every one of us to step forward in preventing disabilities. Key stakeholders – including government, civil society, community leaders, individuals, everyone – must look to develop creative solutions to assist those who have disabilities.

As we all know, violence against women occurs in every nation of the world. In fact, I am sorry to say, it is a global pandemic that cuts across all borders – whether ethnic, racial, class, religious, economic, even educational. Violence can threaten women and girls at any point in their life cycle – from girl infanticide to child marriage, sex trafficking, domestic violence, and rape as a tool of war -- in which women and girls are part of a strategic maiming during warfare and civil unrest. Women and girls who are disabled are even more vulnerable to abuse and are often overlooked by service providers.

Unfortunately, in too many parts of the world, especially in areas of conflict, they are purposely maimed by the armed combatants or gangs, and in the process they lose limbs or may do so as a result of landmines or bombs. Fathers, brothers, and rejected suitors often blind women and girls with acid in the name of honor, which results in their permanent disfigurement. These crimes, and they are crimes, must not go unpunished.

We also need to ensure that our policies and programs recognize the wealth of experiences that the disabilities community has to offer us, and to provide support to eliminate the many obstacles that they face. Taking into account and addressing the needs of people with disabilities are very important factors in the achievement of our foreign policy objectives. Both service providers and policy makers need to ensure that the specific needs of people with disabilities are recognized and that they themselves are included at the decision-making table.

By working with our partners here at home and all over the world, we need to be and stay committed to taking all the steps we can to address gender-based violence in times of war and times of peace, increasing access to healthcare and education, and strengthening all women -- including disabled women, who need and must participate economically and politically so that we can all work more effectively in their communities to take preventive steps where possible and to offer creative solutions where necessary. We are taking a holistic approach to ensuring appropriate care for survivors of abuse while also strengthening deterrents against gender-based violence by reducing impunity, building institutional, community and individual capacity to prevent future acts of rape, abuse, and other targeted violence that leads to lasting physical and psychological wounds and disabilities.

So as we observe this International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we offer our continuing commitment to the inclusion of this most important issue’s in all of the work that we do. I look forward to working with all of you, with the larger community in this important effort. Thank you for all that you do and all that you will do.