Prof. Deborah Stienstra

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, women and girls with disabilities worldwide faced the highest rates of poverty and gender-based violence.

Now a University of Guelph professor will lead a $2.5-million, federally funded research project intended to highlight these issues as well as other challenges facing women and girls with disabilities worldwide.

The seven-year project led by U of G political scientist Deborah Stienstra will receive funding under a Partnership Grant announced today by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Called Engendering Disability-Inclusive Development, the project will study issues involving women and girls with disabilities, including an initial focus on the effects of the current pandemic on the largest minority of women in Canada and around the world.

The project will bring together academics, agencies and governments in Canada, Haiti, South Africa and Vietnam aiming to dismantle barriers facing what the United Nations calls one of the most marginalized groups worldwide.

Stienstra said project partners will work with policy makers on ways to increase inclusion of women and girls with a range of physical, mental-health, intellectual and other disabilities.

“World governments committed to leave no one behind,” she said, referring to sustainable development goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015. “Yet the roughly 1 billion people with disabilities globally – the majority of whom are women and girls – face unique barriers that lead to poverty and exclusion.”

Partner researchers in all four countries will plumb national census data and conduct focus groups and interviews to learn more about experiences of women and girls with disabilities.

In each country, the team will share knowledge and ideas through publications and student training and will hold policy forums with government representatives and advocacy groups.

“By focusing attention, increasing knowledge and creating new opportunities with women and girls, we will create better inclusion,” said Stienstra, who is director of U of G’s Live Work Well Research Centre and holder of the Jarislowsky Chair in Families and Work.

Malcolm Campbell, vice-president (research), said, “This phenomenal University of Guelph-led partnership will increase understanding of and draw attention to challenges facing some of the most marginalized members of society. Through strong collaboration involving academic researchers, governments, and advocacy organizations, the University of Guelph will lead efforts to improve the lives of women and girls here in Canada and around the world.”

U of G researchers will work with the DisAbled Women’s Network Canada (DAWN), the Council of Canadians with Disabilities and Global Affairs Canada, among other partner organizations and universities.

Bonnie Brayton, DAWN’s executive director based in Montreal, called this grant “historic and exciting. This is the largest and most important commitment to women and girls with disabilities that we are aware of.”

In Canada, Stienstra said, DAWN will help to identify barriers, including access to childcare and other services, for women with disabilities. The organization will also ensure that women and girls with disabilities have opportunities to tell their own stories and identify their needs.

Adding that the current pandemic has exacerbated difficulties for people balancing work and family life, she said, “With COVID-19, women with disabilities may also have to juggle having personal support workers come into their homes, cancelled programs that normally provide support or services, as well as increased anxiety and uncertainty about how they can manage during the crisis.”

Other U of G participants include the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute, Project Re-Vision and the Guelph Institute of Development Studies.