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How Women With Disabilities Are Finding Their Voices

According to WHO statistics, 10 percent of women all over the world are disabled. Overall, these women tend to have poorer health outcomes, lower educational achievement, fewer economic opportunities and higher rates of poverty than women who are not disabled. Also, disabled women are 1.5 times more likely to become victims of violence.

Particularly in developing countries, these women have no social safety net. Human services agencies are either concentrated in urban centers or not viewed as budget priorities. Thankfully, many NGOs work to help break the connection between disability, poverty and violence for women (to read about the difference between public and private funding in human services from an MSHS program, visit this page). With their help, disabled women around the world are finding the resources to help themselves.


As part of the Soviet bloc, Armenia once offered high-quality health care to its citizens. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the system grew fragmented and began to favor expensive hospital interventions. Now, over half of Armenian health care expenditures are privately financed, and 84 percent of that comes directly from consumer pockets. People who have recognized disabilities receive some health care services at no charge, but when local hospitals have no medicines to offer, people have to pay.

For example, an Armenian woman named Naira Thovmasian, who is 34 years old, collects a disability pension of U.S. $27 each month. A one-month supply of her most critical medication costs U.S. $32, which is more than her disability pension.

One woman has stepped up to help disabled Armenian women advocate for themselves. Karine Grigoryan, founder of the Agate Center for Women With Disabilities and Special Needs, educates disabled women about their rights, including their rights related to health care access. Agate also trains women in a wide range of skills including cooking, sign language, English language, craftwork, hairdressing and computer literacy.

In addition to providing training and advocacy for disabled women, Agate offers recreational activities, like swimming lessons, and self-defense training. For disabled women who are victims of domestic and sexual violence, Agate offers legal consultation and psychological counseling. Grigoryan, who is disabled herself, says that Armenian society must become more open to differences. “People with disabilities don’t need protection,” says Grigoryan. “They just need equal opportunities to exercise their rights and to be treated with respect and dignity.”


Risna Utami contracted polio when she was four years old, and she uses a wheelchair for mobility along with crutches for short distances. She earned a law degree from an Indonesian university, which required her to crawl up and down four flights of stairs so that she could attend class. Then, with her parents’ help, she studied at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, earning a degree in international health policy and management.

At Brandeis, Utami had an accessible van that enabled her to get around campus. At the Indonesian law school, Utami says she felt like the professors didn’t care about her. At Brandeis, she says, “I felt like a real human being.”

When she returned home to Indonesia, Utami founded Ohana, which works to improve both social welfare and social justice for Indonesian people with disabilities. She also serves as chair of the Indonesian National Consortium for Disability Rights (INCDR). She recently participated in writing a book, which was presented to the Indonesian government, about how Indonesia’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (CRPD) could change life for Indonesia’s disabled citizens. Her hope is that the book will serve as a reference for how to implement policies and programs related to CRPD.

One of the biggest advances of the CRPD is that in Indonesia, people with disabilities can now become involved with legislation. For example, Utami worked on the city planning council in Yogyakarta, helping them to increase available space for disabled people in the city. Her goal is to increase the amount of available public space by 10 percent every year.

Disability Around the World

Disability is a major problem all over the globe. Over 1 billion people, or 15 percent, of the world’s population is disabled. Women like Karine Grigoryan and Risna Utami are showing that women can not only improve life for their disabled sisters but also step into powerful leadership roles in their own rights.


Silvana Veinberg's picture

Agate Center

I was intrigued by the work of the Agate Center, it sounds like a wonderful resource for women with disabilities in Armenia. I am the director of Canales, an NGO in Argentina that works to improve the education for deaf children. I clicked on the MIUSA link and was delighted to read that Agate Center was responsible for this: Publication of the first Armenian-American Sign Language dictionary in 2012. Very nice! If you have more links, I would be very interested in reading more about the Deaf community in Armenia. Warm regards from Argentina, Silvana

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