“Don’t forget about me!”: How listening to girls with disabilities can keep them safer in schools

03 December 2022 by Michelle Lewis Sandall, Girls' Education Challenge

''I don’t participate in any activity because of my disability.''

''I stopped going to school and playing with neighbours after Grade 2 because other children and elders bullied and teased me a lot.''

''My friend with disabilities dropped out of school when she saw people laughing at her.''

''Our science teacher mistreats me. Sometimes he tells me to read and when I can’t read well because I can’t see well due to my visual impairment, he slaps me and sends me out.''

''I have a problem of not controlling urine easily and yet teachers refuse to let me go out in time.''

These quotes are all from young learners with disabilities in schools supported by Girls' Education Challenge (GEC) projects. Girls have told of experiencing mocking, dehumanising language and dismissive attitudes, or being ostracised and intimidated. Others report physical and sexual harassment and violence. Girls with disabilities said they were more likely to receive corporal punishment or threats of violence from teachers or non-teaching staff.

These experiences and voices must be heard and acted upon. There is incredible power in the voices of girls with disabilities. I have been visiting schools and working with girls with disabilities for over 20 years and I am continually amazed at their strength, eloquence and confidence, particularly when they are standing up for their rights.

The challenge

In my work, I realised very quickly that girls with disabilities, including those with intellectual and psychosocial impairments, are not always safe. Their specific needs, capabilities and vulnerabilities are not considered when strategies around gender, safeguarding and protection are being developed. Most importantly, they are often not consulted.

Over the years, I have seen examples of projects making assumptions about what girls with disabilities need or want. Girls with disabilities can be excluded from conversations about how they can be safe. Girls and young women with disabilities can also be treated as asexual and not in need of sexual health education or care - and are not invited to participate in discussions around relationships or sexual and reproductive health. In this way, they can be cut off from crucial knowledge about their rights regarding their bodies and having children and healthy relationships. By only focusing on the impairment, and not on the girls themselves, we risk undermining their rights. 

It is also important not to forget about invisible disabilities. During baseline evaluations, projects found that girls had disabling levels of anxiety and depression. Projects then reached out to girls to find out how they were doing. Similar to what is happening globally, GEC-supported girls explained that their levels of well-being were negatively impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic due to heightened caring responsibilities, isolation and lockdowns. Projects found that they needed to provide more psychosocial support due to this impact on girls. For example, EAGER project (IRC, Sierra Leone), after talking to girls with psychosocial impairments, carried out targeted work to support girls with anxiety and depression by providing psychological first aid and stress management techniques with both girls and mentors. Girls and mentors say that this has positively impacted their coping mechanisms.

Girls with disabilities must be supported in expressing their opinions, making their own decisions, exercising their right to bodily autonomy and living up to their full potential. Fortunately, changes are happening and projects on the GEC are working hard to support girls with disabilities and listen to their needs and desire. Across the GEC, projects have worked to ensure that they are not only addressing safety in schools and school related gender-based violence, but are including a disability lens. This means the projects have considered the particular needs and challenges faced by girls with disabilities. Without specific attention and solutions, these girls will be at greater risk.

Taking action

Having consulted girls, including those with disabilities, GEC projects are looking at the safety of girls in three main ways:

Strengthening reporting systems: Projects work to establish or strengthen reporting mechanisms for all learners affected by violence and bullying, together with support and referral services. This is done in a way that considers the need of girls with disabilities, making it easier for them to report abuse to a trusted adult.

The STAGE project (World Education Inc, Ghana) has worked to integrate out-of-school girls with disabilities into schools, many of whom stay in the school’s boarding facilities. Female staff members and house mothers have been trained as safeguarding champions and focal points for these girls with disabilities. Local female nurses also regularly visit and give inclusive sexual and reproductive health (SRH) talks to the girls, including those with disabilities, as well as supporting their health needs. As a result, STAGE-supported girls with disabilities who were interviewed could identify at least one staff member to whom they could report any safeguarding issues. Some said that the boys did harass them, but that they no longer accepted this.

Violence prevention strategies: After talking to girls, projects found that violence and bullying of girls with disabilities in schools is closely related to disability and gender-related stigma and discrimination from peers and teachers. Projects across the GEC worked with school systems and communities to launch initiatives aimed at reducing stigma and discrimination against girls with disabilities. Projects found that, because of their interventions, there were decreased levels of bullying, abuse and corporal punishment in schools.

After intensive consultation with girls, the SAGE project (Plan International, Zimbabwe) found that girls with disabilities faced bullying and discrimination from their peers. The project has been working with the girls and community dialogues to identify ‘hot spot zones’ for abuse which are escalated to the attention of parents and community leadership.  As a result, girls with disabilities now feel safe at the learning hubs.

After speaking to girls with disabilities, the Expanding Inclusive Education Strategies for Girls with Disabilities project (Leonard Cheshire, Kenya) found that corporal punishment was a problem in government schools. Intensive work on inclusive and positive discipline with teachers was successful, teachers were interacting more positively with girls with disabilities and many no longer used corporal punishment.  ‘At the end of the day if a learner has a disability and you cane that learner, you’ll have drawn the child out of school. But ever since we changed our tactics, the learners [with disabilities] come to school happily.’

Supporting girls’ awareness of violence and their rights: Projects found that girls with disabilities were not always included in SRH, were not aware of their rights and any relevant laws or policies. Projects worked to make reporting mechanisms and referral pathways inclusive for girls with disabilities, for example, by using large fonts and Braille information. Projects promoted inclusive SRH.

The Team Girl Malawi project (Link Education International) has 14% of girls with disabilities across their cohorts. Inclusive girls’ clubs focus on providing a safe space for conversations around sex, sexuality, reproductive health and healthy relationships that includes a focus on information but also access to SRH services. The conversations are presented in a way that are inclusive for girls with disabilities and are gender and culturally sensitive and include activities such as role play or dialogue activities. The project reviewed their SRH curriculum content and activities to be more inclusive of learners with disabilities. As a result, midline results for SRH knowledge of girls with disabilities have significantly increased. 

Many girls feel now safer and more confident. In their own voice, this is what some girls answered when asked what has changed: 

''Things have changed a lot. You just start to be proud of yourself. You say things like ‘everything is possible’. If someone can do this, then I can do better. Now what I should do is just to have faith in myself and be confident that yes, I can. That is what I can say right now.''

''I can now report if someone bullies me without hesitation. There is a girl from my community who insulted me when I passed by her house on my way to the hub. She chased me away and I reported it. Because of the SAGE project, I now feel like I am like other kids. My self-esteem has improved. I can tell people off when they are being bullies.''

''I will always talk to my teacher because he is the one that will always help me in school and when someone takes advantage of me, he will always stand for me. He tells me words of courage.''


Busting myths about education and disability: For more information about GEC project work with children with disabilities, and the myths they they have been 'busting' within schools and communities, click here