Breaking down barriers: bringing women with physical and motor disabilities into view

Date: Tuesday, May 5, 2015

At 9 years of age, Cristina Francisco Reyes was playing with her twin sister Clara and other children, when a stray bullet hit her in the back, injuring her spinal cord and leaving her paraplegic.

In the Dominican Republic at the time there were greater stigmas, numerous physical barriers, little information and little awareness with regards to people and children living with physical and motor limitations. Cristina’s inner strength led her to want to do something for women in the same situation.

Her desire for change gave her the impetus to carry out the work that she has done for more than 25 years in the country, actively participating in sports facilities for people with physical and motor limitations and then joining forums that promote primarily the social inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their human rights. Cristina has also been politically active, founding the Club for People in Wheelchairs and the Association of Persons with Physical-Motor Disabilities (ASODIFIMO), and creating the first forum dedicated to women with disabilities, called the Circle of Women with Disabilities (CIMUDIS).

“It started as the dream of three women who participated in an event as a recommendation from Beijing and today it is a forum with more than 900 women, including young women and adults,” says Cristina. Her participation in the first international meeting of women leaders with disabilities in Maryland, United States, gave her the opportunity to determine the position of women who live with disabilities in the Dominican Republic. The meeting in Maryland was the result of complaints from the few feminist women with disabilities who participated in the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. The meeting allowed her to understand and analyse how women with physical and motor limitations from undeveloped countries, who were impoverished and from diverse ethnic backgrounds, had their own particular needs and faced a unique set of barriers in relation to those from countries in the North.

Today, Cristina feels one of her greatest achievements in life has been, as well as having had her daughters, the creation of the Circle of Women with Disabilities (CIMUDIS). She sees the difference between 17 years ago and the present: that today more women with disabilities know their rights and have the capacity to demand them, and to have a presence in some decision-making forums in order to talk about subjects such as the sexual and reproductive rights of women with disabilities. The ability to break down structural and physical barriers—particularly those that are invisible and rejecting discriminatory attitudes towards women with disabilities—keeps her motivated to remain at the forefront of CIMUDIS together with her colleagues.

What were the greatest obstacles you faced to be able to be politically active in, and make visible, the situation of women with disabilities and to achieve your political participation?

One of the main obstacles faced, which is still very generalized and persistent, is that women with disabilities are stigmatized and labelled as “ill”, seen as being incapable of developing leadership, of having an impact and influence on achieving the social changes necessary for equity, our equality and our political participation. Today, obstacles still persist: the absence of information, the lack of support from family members and friends to enable them to participate in political processes—even to study and take different forms of transport.

How do you understand the commitments made by the State with respect to the Beijing Plan of Action as having contributed to increasing opportunities for women with disabilities in the country?

Regrettably, we are not yet able to talk about results, achievements and political participation of women with disabilities in the Dominican Republic. The commitments of the State are yet to translate into specific actions, plans and public policies that favour women who live with a disability and promote our participation in all areas. Our challenge is to succeed in breaking away from this invisibility and this continues to be one of our priorities.

What do you believe to be your greatest contribution to society and the community of people with disabilities?

Being an example of the fact that goals can always be achieved and that physical and attitudinal barriers will not succeed in stopping us, so that women with disabilities see, through my life experience, that it is possible to be mothers, wives and leaders. I think I have managed to inspire other women with disabilities since through a lack of guidance from home they are denied the right to enjoy their sexual and reproductive rights.

In what way has being a woman influenced your political career?

In general, women today fight and face many obstacles to achieving recognition of their rights to political participation and to be present in political decision-making forums, like the one in the Congress of the Dominican Republic and other similarly relevant places. The percentages say that there is clearly an enormous gap and unfinished work ahead to achieve equality in the sphere of women’s political participation.

If, as well as being a woman, you add having a disability, the barriers to inclusion double, since additional factors make obstacles to accessing political positions almost impossible to overcome. This is not the case in other places in the region—such as Argentina, where legislation has been passed to ensure that women with disabilities hold seats in Congress and the Senate, as a way to ensure that these women are able to have an influence from these forums and involve and represent their sector of society. They see to it that each one of the laws that is considered and approved is cross-cutting from a gender and disability perspective.

What message would you give to other women and girls who live with some type of disability who may feel inspired by your path and achievements?

The key to success in anything we do is persistence and knowing with certainty that we possess full rights, that if we are denied these rights, we must not only claim them, but also fight for them and for our convictions, until we succeed in making our dreams a reality. We must never stop dreaming!

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are of the author and may not necessarily reflect those of UN Women.