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The right to be seen and heard
by UNICEF, IDA, UNDESA, agencies
Dec. 2021
The right to be seen and heard, by Maria Alexandrova, a Youth Disability Advocate based in Bulgaria.
On Friday, 3 December, in Bulgaria, I, like many of my peers and allies around the world, will celebrate International Day for Persons with Disabilities, an observance promoted by the United Nations since 1992. This is a day for increasing awareness, empathy and understanding of the issues faced by more than one billion people – approximately 15 per cent of the world's population – who live with some form of disability.
As one of these billion, I attach deep meaning to this day. Many in my community are invisible to those who make decisions about us. Often excluded from official statistics, we are more likely to be overlooked in public policies needed to improve lives and livelihoods.
Without data on how many people living with disabilities remain, for example, cut off from quality health and education services, government officials and other leaders cannot design reforms to address these disparities – disparities, by the way, that only compound the discrimination and rights violations our community already confronts.
Just this month, though, the data gap narrowed: The largest compilation of statistics on children with disabilities to date was published by UNICEF, using internationally comparable data from 42 countries and areas, and covering over 60 indicators of child well-being – from nutrition and health, to access to clean water, protection from violence, and education.
This report is a major step towards assessing the extent to which young people like me are included in development efforts. But numbers don’t tell the whole story. We may come to understand the proportion of children with disabilities who, for example, are malnourished, but we won’t come to understand why. For that, we must hear more voices from my community – listen to our experiences, and heed our accounts of how to make real, lived change.
That’s why this 3 December – and this year’s theme, "Leadership and participation of persons with disabilities towards an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-COVID-19 world” – are of great importance.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to amplify the inequities between young people who live with disabilities and those who don’t, it is increasingly important for the disabled community to have a seat at the decision-making table.
Counting us is not enough: It is up to governments, stakeholders, and all other relevant organizations to create opportunities for our voices to be heard.
Only by promoting the active engagement of people with disabilities in all democratic processes, can we move towards a more inclusive world.
Inclusive policies are crucial not only to meet the most basic needs of our community, but also to create an environment of belonging.
It is tough to overstate the feelings of isolation that come with an inaccessible environment that discourages social interaction with peers, and the damage that can wreak on one's mental health.
As someone who has worked as a UNICEF Youth Advocate for Inclusive Education in Bulgaria, a global U-Report Champion, and a member of the first-ever Youth Sounding Board (launched by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for International Partnerships), I can attest to the power that good leadership and participation have in creating a more accessible, inclusive and sustainable world.
Disability advocates carry a certain level of responsibility in representing a widely diverse group of individuals accurately and authentically, each with different conditions, impairments and needs.
It is no easy task: People like me can only draw from personal experience and, at times, our professional capacity, if we have chosen to further explore disability rights. Nevertheless, I believe those lucky few who have carved out a platform to speak and who are actively working towards a better tomorrow, should make a conscious effort to help others do the same. This way, we can be a shining example of what it means to be an inclusive leader.
Second, governments too have an immense level of responsibility. Public officials can be drivers of change through comprehensive legislative reform to help create a world where:
Children feel safe in their home environment and have access to resources – including, but not limited to, inclusive education, a priority outlined in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – that help them reach their full potential.
All teenagers with disabilities, especially young girls, have access to adequate education and information on reproductive health.
All adults with disabilities have accessible living and working conditions. Village, town and city infrastructures are accessible and enable people with disabilities to enjoy socio-cultural activities.
Adequate support is provided to caregivers of children with disabilities. People with disabilities are consulted in the policymaking process.
Only by promoting the active engagement of people with disabilities in all democratic processes, can we move towards a more inclusive world. We are the best writers of our own stories; we can use our lived experiences to provide long-term solutions to issues affecting our community.
All of this can be achieved if and only when societal perceptions towards those with disabilities are shifted, opening a space for us to make our voices heard through continuous dialogue with relevant stakeholders.
One effective approach is consulting with organizations of persons with disabilities, which have first-hand experience working with and alongside our community.
It is up to us and all relevant parties to create an accommodating and participatory environment where no one gets left behind. As our international motto says, “Nothing about us without us.”
* COVID-19 exacerbated existing inequalities – research shows how systems can do better. (IDA):
June 2021
People with disabilities were particularly hard hit by the social and economic impacts of efforts to control COVID-19. (IPS)
At the start of the pandemic, lockdowns, curfews, disruptions in transportation and a halt in tourism sent economies spiralling. In the Caribbean, people with disabilities began experiencing severe delays in public and disability assistance.
“They were relatively small amounts that a lot of people with disabilities rely on to purchase food and other essential supplies, so if this was delayed imagine the great strain and the hardship that it placed on people. It proved that if during times of crisis our social safety nets cannot function, there is a lot of work to be done,” President of Saint Lucia’s National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities, Merphilus James told IPS.
James, who is also the President of Disabled People’s International North America and the Caribbean is also calling for a review of public assistance for people with disabilities.
“Most of our members rely on these payments, which in most cases are not reflective of the current cost of living,” he said, noting that the United Nations Social Policy Brief on the Disability Inclusive Response to COVID-19 recommends advanced disbursement of public assistance grants, to ensure people with disabilities have time to procure food other supplies.
“It’s inexcusable to have delays in the payments of public assistance stipends in times like these.”
Some Governments were able to streamline the payment process and for countries like Saint Lucia, donations were received from religious groups, supermarket chains and the National Emergency Management Organisation.
UN officials say lessons like these underscore the importance of protecting people with disabilities in emergencies.
The 14th Session of the Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities took place over three days this week, guided by the theme, “Building back better: COVID-19 response and recovery; Meeting the needs, Realising the rights and Addressing the socio-economic impacts on persons with disabilities.”
“Persons with disabilities are among those most adversely impacted by the pandemic, with disproportionate loss of lives and impact on health as well as livelihoods,” said Ilze Brands Kehris, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, with support from the UN Partnership on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and UN Women, recently undertook a series of case studies on the socio-economic impact of COVID-19. The results have been described as ‘discouraging.’
“Once again, studies demonstrate that persons with disabilities are being left behind. Be it with regard to equal access to healthcare, social protection, data collection, participation, information and international response, or in terms of the situation of those living in institutionalised settings,” the Assistant Secretary-General said.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), over one billion people live with some form of disability.
UN officials said this week that COVID-19 has shown the rest of the world what people with disabilities know all too well – isolation, mobility restrictions and challenges accessing basic services. They are hoping that this shared experience has taught important lessons about the impact of exclusion from community life.
One of the areas officials say is in urgent need of reform is access to employment.
The International Labour Organisation, in a landmark report, calculated ‘the price of excluding people with disabilities from the workplace.’ It’s researchers concluded that countries forfeit between three and seven percent of Gross Domestic Product when they omit this pillar of workplace mainstreaming.
James is hoping that employers heed the pandemic’s lessons on remote education and work.
“If we are to empower our people, we must provide them with portable, credible certification through education, so that they are more marketable and can earn a meaningful income. This requires that governments invest in more reliable, affordable internet on small island nations like Saint Lucia. That is crucial. We have a right to information,” he said.
“Ensuring that there is greater employment of people with disabilities is just good business. It is good for the economy and COVID-19 has proven how easy it is for people to work from home and be extremely productive.”
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted by the General Assembly in 2006. It covers a range of issues including access to buildings, education and health. It also addresses stigma and discrimination.
Earlier this year, the WHO adopted a landmark resolution on disability that vowed to develop a report on the highest attainable standard of health for persons with disabilities by the end of 2022.
One of the key messages from this week’s meetings is the need to frankly assess how people with disabilities were treated and impacted during a public health crisis. Panelists stressed the need to applaud what went right and address the wrongs such as people with disabilities appearing to be afterthoughts, delayed, yet urgently-needed financial and other support, as well as the impacts of prolonged, heightened isolation.
“It is crucial that we do not just fix what was broken, but that we take an innovative approach to truly implementing pioneering suggestions. COVID-19 has proven that we need to create systems that are not so fragile if we are to cope well in the future against such pandemics,” says James.

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Global Multidimensional Poverty Index 2021
by Sabina Alkire
Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative
The global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) produced by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative measures poverty by considering various deprivations experienced by people in their daily lives, including poor health, insufficient education and a low standard of living.
The global Multidimensional Poverty Index 2021 compares acute multidimensional poverty for 109 countries in developing regions. These countries are home to 5.9 billion people, three-quarters of the world’s population. Of these people, 1.3 billion (21.7%) are identified by the 2021 global MPI as multidimensionally poor.
The 2021 global MPI shows both who is poor – in terms of their age group, subnational region, and whether they live in an urban or rural area ­– and how they are poor – in terms of which overlapping deprivations they face.
This year’s report, Global Multidimensional Poverty Index 2021: Unmasking disparities by ethnicity, caste and gender, examines inequalities along the lines of ethnicity, case and gender across multidimensionally poor people globally. These disparities are likely to have been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Using the data that are available, the report presents for the first time disaggregations by the gender of the household head for 108 countries, and by ethnicity or race or caste for 41 countries.
The analysis aims to highlight groups that are being left behind and show which interlinked deprivations hinder progress in poverty reduction, so that the global community can act effectively.
The report finds that, in some cases, disparities in multidimensional poverty across ethnic and racial groups are greater than disparities across geographical subnational regions. When the MPI is disaggregated by ethnic group, the range in values is greater than that across all 109 countries and all other disaggregations tested.
It also shows how, within a country, multidimensional poverty among different ethnic groups can vary immensely. For example, the difference in the percentage of people who are multidimensionally poor across ethnic groups is more than 70 percentage points in Gabon and Nigeria.
In Latin America, indigenous peoples are among the poorest. For instance, in Bolivia indigenous communities account for about 44 percent of the population but represent 75 percent of multidimensionally poor people. The figures are also stark in India where five out of six multidimensionally poor people were from lower tribes or castes.
The MPI combines the incidence and the intensity of poverty. The two poorest ethnic groups in Gambia - the Wollof and the Sarahule - have roughly the same MPI value, but their deprivations differ, suggesting different policy actions are needed to reduce multidimensional poverty.
An intrahousehold analysis of multidimensional poverty focused on gender is also included. Worldwide about two-thirds of multidimensionally poor people (836 million) live in households where no woman or girl completed at least six years of schooling.
One-sixth of all multidimensionally poor people (215 million) live in households in which at least one boy or man has completed six or more years of schooling but no girl or woman has.
The report also finds that women and girls living in multidimensional poverty are at higher risk of intimate partner violence.
Key findings
Worldwide, across 109 countries and 5.9 billion people: 1.3 billion people are multidimensionally poor. About half (644 million) are children under age 18.
Nearly 85 percent live in Sub-Saharan Africa (556 million) or South Asia (532 million). More than 67 percent live in middle-income countries.
1 billion each are exposed to solid cooking fuels, inadequate sanitation and substandard housing. 568 million lack improved drinking water within a 30-minute roundtrip walk.
788 million live in a household with at least one undernourished person.
Sabina Alkire, Director of OPHI at the University of Oxford, says of the report: ‘Disaggregating multidimensional poverty data by ethnicity, race, caste and exploring gendered and intrahousehold patterns unmasks disturbing levels of disparities and forms a vital guide to policymakers to leave no one behind in the last decade for action. Achieving a future where all people enjoy core capabilities they value and have reason to value requires the global community to fix these structural inequalities that oppress and hinder progress.’
While complete data on COVID-19’s impacts on the MPI are not yet available, the pandemic has exposed cracks in social protections systems, education, and workers’ vulnerability around the world. These cracks, the report shows, are deepest in countries with higher levels of multidimensional poverty.
For instance, millions of children around the world stopped attending school during the pandemic but that disruption of formal education was more prevalent in higher MPI countries.
In Zambia for example, the difference between the share of households with children attending school before the pandemic and those who participated in teacher-assisted learning during the pandemic was around 80 percentage points. Experiences from past health emergencies suggest that many of these children may never go back to school.
Disparities in multidimensional poverty among ethnic groups are consistently high across many countries and in nine ethnic groups more than 90 percent of the population is trapped in poverty.

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