SDG Series #5: Intersecting inequalities Disability, poverty dynamics, and the SDGs

By Vidya Diwakar, CPAN Research Officer

Disability may cause poverty, and poverty may cause disability. This two-way street has become a landmark drive-through visited time and again in disability and poverty discourses. But what about the intersections – women with disabilities who are persistently poor? These intersecting inequalities remain a blind spot in the literature, policy frameworks, and more recently, in the Sustainable Development Goals.

In an IDA-ADD-CPAN partnered project on disability and poverty dynamics in Bangladesh, I have attempted to illuminate this blind spot. Specifically, I investigated how disability and chronic poverty amongst women in the country affects activities of daily living, social assistance, and household coping strategies. I adopted a gendered lens as the lived realities of persistently poor women across developing country contexts are distinct from those of persistently poor men. This led me to hypothesize that the same may hold true within the subset of PWDs. From this springboard, I analysed the IFPRI Chronic Poverty and Long Term Impact Study, a panel study of rural Bangladesh between 1994 and 2010. My inquiry is part of a larger study that explores disability and poverty dynamics in Bangladesh; in the other related investigations, Peter Davis draws on life-history interviews to examine how poverty can magnify the disabling effect of certain impairments, while Binayak Sen tests whether links between disability and poverty are stronger where people have severe functional limitations or are severely poor.
Quantitative results confirm the importance of gender in the disability-poverty dyad, and the consequent shortfall of the current SDG framework. Though disability is mentioned several times across the SDGs, not once are these intersecting inequalities specifically addressed. Consider some of these goals:

  • SDG4.5 seeks to eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations. This is certainly a noble goal. But why stop there? Why not delve one unit of analysis further and recognise the distinct experiences of girls with disabilities (or equally of girls from ethnic minorities or in vulnerable situations)? In rural Bangladesh, I found that persistently poor girls with disabilities are much less likely to have attended school or completed primary education compared to boys in the same circumstances, though results are not statistically significant at conventional levels. This suggests that current education stipends need to develop to specifically target this cohort. 
  • SDG8.5 advocates productive employment for all women and men, including for persons with disabilities. Again, mentioning these groups in the same sentence does not explicitly acknowledge their intersection or actively encourage policies aimed at improving the lives of the vulnerable. In the Bangladesh dataset, while persistently poor women with disabilities are more likely to be employed compared to their male comparator group, it is highly probable that this employment is not gainful but stems from a position of heightened vulnerability where the work may be on very poor terms.
  • SDG17.18 encourages data disaggregated by “income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location and other characteristics”. Here, too, the explicit intersections between these vulnerabilities remain absent. 

To be sure, the SDG goals take large strides towards improving the lived realities of persons with disabilities. They delve into critical concerns surrounding access to education and employment, empowerment, and data availability among this group. But noble though the framework may be, it falls short in explicitly acknowledging intersecting inequalities. To this end, as the Bangladesh study suggests, the disability-poverty dyad should be expanded into a disability-poverty-gender triad, and the tale of intersections brought to light. 

More information on the project Disability, poverty and poverty dynamics: a preliminary analysis of panel data, policies and politics in Bangladesh