Lower representation of women with disabilities in national data sets is a sign of their diminished presence in the public life
nformed conversation about the issues faced by women with disabilities in our national discourse is nearly non-existent because they are virtually invisible both in public as well as our national data sets. Women with disabilities have to face not only access barriers owing to their different disabilities but also obstacles, which the society has specifically reserved for women. The conversation needs to move beyond stating the issues and focus on how to resolve these.
The under-representation of persons with disabilities in national data sets, especially those of women with disabilities, is a sign of their diminished presence in the public life. Therefore, as a starting point, understanding the extent of gender disparity in disability statistics maintained by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics and the National Database and Registration Authority is crucial to determine steps that need to be taken to improve their visibility.
As far as the head count of PWDs of both sexes is concerned, the data available on the PBS website paints a grim picture. In the 1998 Census, the total population was 132,352,279 and the population of PWDs was 3,286,630, accounting for a mere 2 percent of the population. Out of the 3,286,630 persons with disabilities, 1,915,102 were men with disabilities, and 1,371,528 were women with disabilities. This shows that there were 543,574 fewer women than men with disabilities, the difference as a fraction being 16 percent.
In the 2017 Census, the total population was 207,684,626 and the population of PWDs was 910,083, accounting for a mere 0.4 percent of the total population. Out of a total of 910,083 persons with disabilities, 565,501 were men with disabilities, and 344,582 were women with disabilities. This indicated that there were 220,919 fewer women than men with disabilities, with difference in percentage being as high as 24 percent. But where are the 2,376,547 PWDs that were recorded in 1998 but not in 2017?
The PBS had clearly failed to count the PWDs. How else could one explain that in 19 years, the population of PWDs had decreased from 3,286,630, (which was already just around 2 percent of the total population) to 910,083, a mere 0.4 percent of the total population? At the time of writing this report, the PBS had neither publicly released the disability data from the 2023 digital census, nor responded to requests for information submitted under the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017.
Women with disabilities are also at a massive disadvantage in getting access to disability insignia CNICs which the NADRA issues to citizens who have been medically certified as having a disability. As per NADRA data shared in response to a request under the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017, on June 21, 2023, out of a total of 592,072 disability-insignia CNICs issued nationwide, 420,715 were issued to men and 171,357 to women. This indicated that 173,225 fewer CNICs had been issued to women with disabilities nationwide.
Women with disabilities who were issued disability insignia CNICs were fewer than men with disabilities who were issued the same across four major disabilities in all the provinces, Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan and Islamabad Capital Territory. For example, a total of 485,538 individuals with physical impairments were issued CNICs in the country. Of these, a total of 349,196 CNICs were issued to men with physical impairments, whereas only 136,342 were issued to women with physical impairments.
In the speech and hearing impairments category, a total of 27,996 CNICs were issued in the country. Of these, 18,233 CNICs were issued to men with speech and hearing impairments and 9,763 to women with speech and hearing impairments.
In mental health condition category, a total of 36,813 CNICs were issued. Of these, 23,928 CNICs were issued to men with mental health conditions and 12,885 to women with mental health conditions.
A total of 41,725 CNICs were issued to the visually impaired. Of these, 29,358 CNICs were issued to men with visual impairment and 12,367 to women with visual impairment.
In some cases, the invisibility of women with disabilities in NADRA CNICs data was absolute. To cite just one example, 15 districts in Balochistan did not issue a single CNIC to women with speech and hearing impairments.
It is unfortunate that the linguistic aggression against our PWDs which finds its manifestations in jokes, proverbs and the way we address PWDs, both as individuals as well as a group of people, also finds its expression in the language of our national data sets. The NADRA and the PBS use the term “mentally retarded” to refer to persons with mental health conditions. Furthermore, the PBS uses the term “deaf” and “mute” to refer to individuals who have hearing and speech impairments; and the term “crippled” to describe those who have physical impairments. Using terms like these reduces individuals to their physical impairments and ignores their identity beyond their physical condition.
Two initiatives can greatly help in improving the visibility of PWDs both in our national data sets and in public life. First, the NADRA should jealously guard and protect from disclosure personal data of identifiable individuals. It should not drag its feet in disclosing general data as is in the case of disability CNICs data. In fact, it is obligated under Section 5 of the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017, to proactively publish periodic disability statistics reports on its website. These reports should be based on district/ tehsil and gender wise disaggregated data of PWDs who have been issued CNICs. The social welfare departments can greatly benefit from this data in tracking and monitoring the progress of issuance of CNICs to PWDs.
Second, given the stigma attached with disability, the cost of living in general and the associated cost of living with disability, there is a strong case for universal income for women with disabilities. Therefore, income threshold for PWDs, especially for women with disabilities, needs to be disregarded as it creates hurdles in access to essential financial aid. Once the Benazir Income Support Programme starts providing financial assistance to all women with disabilities, who have CNIC with disability insignia, irrespective of their income level and without any household survey, families of PWDs will have an incentive to get these CNICs.
The writer is a former federal information commissioner and author of Disabled by Society. He can be reached at email@example.com. His X handle: @XahidAbdullah