The panel discussion in session.(courtesy UNFPA Sri Lanka)

Is it a human right or a human responsibility to ensure that no person is marginalised owing to physical or intellectual disabilities, just as much as inclusiveness must extend to all other diversities such as race, religion, colour or sexual orientation etc.?

At a panel discussion hosted by the UNFPA, during the International Conference on Birth Defects and Disabilities in the Developing World, on February 25th, panelists pointed to the fact that people with disabilities are the ‘most marginalised groups when it comes to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services.”     Even where services are physically accessible, women and young persons with disabilities continue to face barriers in obtaining comprehensive sexuality education, owing to social stigma and financial and psychological challenges associated with the disability.

The panel discussion, held at the Cinnamon Grand in Colombo focussed on ‘Addressing birth defects from the lens of Human Rights and Inclusion, and looked at the issue from the perspective of gender equality.

As one of the panelists, Professor Athula Kaluarachchi, Senior Lecturer, Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Colombo pointed out ““Just like everyone else, people with disabilities should be able to enjoy a sexual life as well as have children if they wish. They must have equal access to family planning and antenatal care among other things. It is imperative that the service providers keep in mind their responsibilities towards people with birth defects and disabilities when planning and implementing reproductive health programmes.”

Professor Subhangi Herath, of the Department of Sociology, Colombo University added that services for those with disabilities cannot be considered as a ‘one size fits all’, basis, because those with intellectual challenges are often left out as services  and exemptions   may be made only for the disabled who are dealing with physical and easily visible issues.

In her introductory remarks, UNFPA Resident Representative, Ms. Ritsu Nacken recalled that in her home country, Japan, a law to stop the birth of ‘inferior descendants’  forcibly sterilized those with physical or cognitive disabilities, mental illnesses, behavioural issues or suffered from chronic illnesses, between 1948 and 1996 and resulted in these victims facing untold suffering and stigma.  In 2019 the Japanese parliament passed a law to pay the victims $ 29,000 as compensation.

She added that though the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities came into force in 2008 and Sri Lanka ratified it in 2016, individuals with disabilities continue to face many barriers, including access to SRH services.   It is an area that is ‘largely overlooked by ‘policy, planning and service delivery, social, legal, health and welfare services she added.

The panel also included Dr. Shyamini Hettiarachchi, Senior Lecturer, Department of Disability Studies, Kelaniya University and was moderated by Janitha Rukmal, disability rights activist and Co-Founder of Enable Lanka Foundation.


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