Disability and Sexuality at the United Nations

Disability and Sexuality at the United Nations

On March 30, 2007, after nearly four decades of work, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and a corresponding Optional Protocol opened for signatures at the United Nations. A record number of opening signatures from 82 nations ensured its status as one of the most successful UN conventions since the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The convention contains wide-ranging obligations on behalf of signatory states, many of which re-assert values from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as from the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights with special attention to the particular needs of persons with disabilities (PWD).

The origins of the convention date back a few years prior. In December of 2001, Mexico proposed the establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee to consider proposals for the convention. Concurrent meetings occurred once every year until the establishment of the final text in 2006. The convention marked the first official binding international legal document on the rights of persons with disabilities. It served as a follow up to the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities, a non-binding resolution passed by the General Assembly in 1993.

While the convention itself remains a monumental instrument for achieving progress in global disability justice, it has numerous shortcomings, particularly with regard to sexuality. Although the committee attempted to start off strong with its inclusion of civil society, each year their influence dwindled until their right to intervene in meetings was revoked. The lack of inclusion of sexuality in the text could be a consequence of the stifled interventions of civil society which resulted in a state-dominated process, as sexuality is often avoided in governmental discourse. This is a product of humanity’s conditioned discomfort with the topic of sex, the danger that pleasure poses to the established heteronormative and reproduction focused status quo, and State fear of what obligations based on freedom “to” pleasure rather than freedom “from” sex could mean for their governmental autonomy. 

Most commonly, sexuality is discussed at the UN, and at the individual state level, in terms of reproductive health. By relegating sexuality within the confines of procreation, it becomes owned by only those who can reproduce, centering the discourse around a rigid understanding of biological sex, as opposed to gender in all its forms. This discourse ignores intersectional struggles and authorizes only particular agents of the protections guaranteed in sexuality-related conventions.

In addition to this, sexuality is often discussed in reference to sexual violence and exploitation (specifically in the CRC). While a pressing issue in matters of global injustices, focusing solely on sexual violence and ignoring sexual freedom casts the members of already marginalized groups as victims, rather than autonomous enjoyers of their inalienable rights.

Evidently, sexuality is already an avoided topic; the sexuality of people with disabilities is a taboo that governing bodies would rather pretend does not exist at all. This was soberingly true during the negotiations of the CRPD. The most prevalent issue in relation to sexuality was advocacy to ensure that persons with disabilities were not subject to forced sterilization or abortion. Again, isolating sexual freedom within reproductive rights and centers person’s with disabilities’ lived experiences solely around the violence and erasure that is inflicted upon them. This is the result of conservative influences at the UN, like the Holy See, conservative Christian and Islamic states, and fundamentalist religious NGOs. The same coalition of conservative voices acts to limit the rights of women and the LGBTIQ community.

In addition to discussing sexuality in terms of victimhood, conservative leaders ensured that sexual freedom was discarded in place of an upholding of traditional heteronormative family values. The draft language of the convention stipulated that persons with disabilities have an “equal opportunity to have sexual and other intimate relationships.” Through the process of establishing the Convention as it was adopted, the language changed to the right to “marry and found a family.” 

The creation of the CRPD was not the only instance in which sexuality was hotly debated on the international stage, but it was the first instance of a collective effort to group disability and sexuality at the United Nations. The restriction of sexual agency in the CRPD represents the many barriers raised against persons with disabilities, and particularly LGBTIQ persons with disabilities. 

The most glaring effort is the reluctance to authorize persons with disabilities as agents of their own free will in matters that involve their sexual well-being. This is directly connected with the efforts to depict persons with disabilities as victims rather than autonomous enjoyers of their inherent rights. Conservative leaders utilize the realities of sexual and gender-based violence committed against persons with disabilities, as well as efforts to terminate pregnancies on the grounds of disability, in order to construct a conception of a person with disabilities that is in need of protection, and not suitable for propagating society.

One organization that works tirelessly to address the intersection of gender and disability rights is Women Enabled International. Their mission includes empowering women and gender-diverse people with disabilities in human rights advocacy. Their approach to advocacy work includes dismantling prevalent stereotypes, increasing access to justice mechanisms, building the capacity of persons with disabilities, among many other important areas. 

One such area is cross-movement building. OutRight Action International was proud to partner with Women Enabled International for our Pride with a Purpose campaign. This blog post was created with this partnership in mind, further expressing the dire need to build cross-movement advocacy strategies in order to build a world that is inclusive of all lived experiences. Visit WEI’s blog spot, “Rewriting the Narrative,” where the organization collects the perspectives of women and gender-diverse people with disabilities across the world.