COVID-19: National Indigenous Disabled Women Association Nepal (NIDWAN Nepal)

For marginalized groups within the disability community, the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and government lockdowns can be compounded, making such populations as indigenous women with disabilities more vulnerable to abuse and extreme hunger and to the coronavirus itself. “Certain marginalized groups’ identities like sex, disability, indigenous identity, poverty, geography, these things still matter in the COVID-19 situation, and that is why people are not able get their treatment in a very appropriate way and in an intersectional manner,” says Pratima Gurung, DRF/DRAF Grantmaking Committee member, from Nepal. “That means the intersectional kind of approach is not applied because the government has been using the same kind of blanket approach for all persons.”

Soaps, sanitizer, all these things were required and people did not even know what sanitizer means, what social distancing means, what does quarantine mean.”

Gurung is the president of the National Indigenous Disabled Women Association Nepal (NIDWAN Nepal) and the general secretary of the Indigenous Persons with Disabilities Global Network (IPWDGN). NIDWAN Nepal recently worked with the Minority Rights Group to issue a global statement on the impact of COVID-19 on persons with disabilities from minority, indigenous, and other marginalized communities, and NIDWAN Nepal also will be part of a virtual summit on “Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in COVID-19 Response and Preparation of Risk Reduction in South Asia” on May 4 from 5 to 6:30 PM PST. The summit will be attended by representatives of the UN, leading DPOs from South Asian countries, among others.

At the summit, Gurung will be speaking from the perspective of gender, indigenous and marginalized persons with disabilities. She cites several ways that indigenous persons with disabilities have been excluded from critical COVID-19 responses in Nepal. On the most basic level, there has been a lack of life-saving prevention messages in accessible and culturally appropriate formats. “When it comes to indigenous communities…the local language has not been reflected and not been disseminated as information,” says Gurung. “The precautious measures that people need to do like washing their hands, having social distancing – all those things were very much complicated to these groups. For example, indigenous people, even they don’t know and they’re not used to washing hands all the time because our culture is so much affiliated and close to the Mother Earth. But when it came to the COVID-19 situation, that was totally different. Soaps, sanitizer, all these things were required and people did not even know what sanitizer means, what social distancing means, what does quarantine mean.”

Pratima Gurung from National Indigenous Disabled Women Association Nepal (Nidwan Nepal) by Jody Santos [with captions]

Gurung also knows many families who are running out of food and on the brink of starvation, and while the government of Nepal is distributing relief packages to some residents, she says most indigenous people do not have the required paperwork to receive these supplies: “If you see the procedure of getting those relief packages, either you need to have a citizenship or your name should be registered or you need to have access with a duty bearer. Most often the vulnerable, marginalized groups like indigenous people, most of them do not have citizenship. People are dying of starvation. It’s a very very critical situation.”

Gurung also worries about those indigenous persons with disabilities who don’t have access to critical medical supplies – people with spinal cord injuries who need catheters and collection bags, for instance, and people with hemophilia in need of plasma. “People with hemophilia living in rural areas, they are having a kind of threat. Either they have to leave, or their bleeding continues,” she says. 

Another vulnerable group during this pandemic – indigenous women and girls with disabilities who, isolated inside their homes, are at higher risk of abuse from a family member. “We know the reality but…we are not able to bring those voices because those have been suppressed due to the issue of social protection [the lockdown],” Gurung says. “What is going to happen? If I am raped and I tell about my father who raped me, what will happen after tomorrow? Who’s going to look after me?”

This month Gurung co-wrote a national report on COVID-19 and its impact on persons with disabilities and marginalized groups in Nepal that she submitted to the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, and other officials on April 21. Among the report’s recommendations:

Nepal Government and all the relevant stakeholders should immediately make sure that persons with disabilities and their OPDs (Office of Development Programs) have equal access to the information on an equal basis with others and they receive these mass awareness raising information of COVID-19 pandemic in an accessible format, local languages, easy to read versions and audio and visual materials. 

Nepal Government should take immediate actions to make available of medical kits and clinical apparatus to persons with disabilities that are in need. All people must have access to COVID-19 testing and treatment without discrimination based on their single or multiple identities. 

The Government and relevant stakeholders should establish an appropriate mechanism to address all structural, institutional and other kinds of barriers faced by persons with disabilities and underrepresented groups like indigenous peoples with disabilities to access the local government’s relief packages and health services on an equal basis with others. 

Gurung and her team are now in the process of collecting case studies about persons with disabilities during COVID-19 to include in the second phase of their report.