The Indigenous World 2021: Indigenous Persons with Disabilities Global Network (IPWDGN)

Over 1 billion people, or approximately 15% of the world’s population, are persons with disabilities.[1] Applying this percentage to the estimated 476 million Indigenous Peoples globally, the number of Indigenous persons with disabilities stands at approximately 71 million.[2] Similarly, if this percentage of 15% of the population with disabilities were applied to the estimated 185 million Indigenous women worldwide, it would come to 28 million Indigenous women with disabilities globally[3] The Indigenous Persons with Disabilities Global Network (IPWDGN) estimates that 45 million of these Indigenous people with disabilities live in the Asia Pacific region in developing and underdeveloped countries.[4]

Several studies have reflected the higher prevalence of disabilities among Indigenous Peoples because of a high level of poverty, increased exposure to environmental degradation, malnutrition, the impact of large projects such as dams or mining activities and the higher risk of being victims of violence.[5] Indigenous people with disabilities face exclusion, marginalization, and multiple layers of discrimination, and face barriers to the full enjoyment of their rights, based on their disability, ethnic origin and gender. And yet despite higher rates of disability in Indigenous communities, in most cases little or no attention is given to their situation, and they have no access to the services and support they need to participate fully in wider society and their own communities.[6]

Normative principles

The rights of Indigenous people with disabilities have been recognized in the preamble to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), and in Articles 21 and 22 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Outcome Document of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples 2014 offers a new and historic opportunity for the Member States and Indigenous Peoples to commit to the inclusion of peoples with disabilities in all efforts to realize the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In addition, the UN COVID-19 Brief Report-June states that Indigenous people with disabilities have faced greater inequalities in accessing healthcare during the pandemic due to inaccessible health information and other obstacles and barriers such as discrimination in accessing healthcare facilities.[7] Similarly, the UN COVID 19 Brief Report-May states that the global crisis is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing the extent of exclusion and highlighting the fact that work on disability inclusion is imperative.[8] People with disabilities experience intersectional and multiple discrimination as a result of their gender identity, age, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, origin, location and legal status, among other factors, and carry a heavier burden of the immediate and long-term economic and social consequences of the pandemic.[9]

In addition, the UN highlighted exacerbated maternal mortality and morbidity, increased rates of adolescent pregnancies, HIV, and sexually-transmitted infections for women during COVID-19 and it is difficult to find disaggregated data on Indigenous women and Indigenous people with disabilities.[10] So the collective efforts made by Indigenous people with disabilities to raise their voices are crucial at present.

From global to local advocacy

With the support of the Disability Rights Advocacy Fund (DRAF), Indigenous persons with disabilities have launched an incipient international movement by establishing the Indigenous Persons with Disabilities Global Network (IPWDGN), founded in May 2012 to promote the rights of Indigenous people with disabilities at the global level, reach out to new communities, and engage with international and regional human rights and development processes.[11] This has resulted in a growing interest in addressing the needs and rights of Indigenous people with disabilities by UN entities with mandates focused specifically on the situation of persons with disabilities or Indigenous Peoples.[12]

In addition, together with other Indigenous Peoples’ organizations, the International Disability Alliance (IDA) has been supporting the work of IPWDGN at different levels, highlighting the issues and challenges faced by them. The COVID-19 crisis has, in this regard, entrenched systemic gaps, underlying structural inequalities and pervasive discrimination, which have become more visible with inadequate healthcare, access to information, employment and livelihoods, and an inadequate social protection system afforded to persons with disabilities, affecting their lives and advocacy and putting them in a most vulnerable and risky group.

A crisis within a crisis and exclusion within excluded communities

Many Indigenous persons with disabilities have specific existing underlying conditions that make a disease such as COVID-19 more dangerous for them. Their limited access to culturally appropriate information, personal assistance and medical care has affected them, and limited participation in decision-making is putting their human rights in peril during the pandemic.

There is a lack of local government coordination with the organizations of Indigenous people with disabilities and local community leaders, and bureaucratic barriers have prevented this group from being counted and included in relief efforts. This has resulted in starvation, death, and the prevention of the transmission of intergenerational knowledge.[13] This situation has created a crisis within a crisis of long-standing discrimination, inequality, invisibility and exclusion within marginalized communities.

Many women and girls with disabilities, people with intellectual and severe impairments, already have limited mobility in normal times, and they have been even more restricted during the extended lockdown. They are facing an increased risk of threat, isolation, dilemma, anxiety, indifference, abuse and violence.

Different experiences and increasing rates of violence and risk during COVID -19

In June 2020, during the COVID-19 relief distribution process, different people with disabilities expressed how different their experience was. In her statement, one of our interviewees stated:

Our experience during the pandemic is different; my life has been limited to isolation within four walls and I have become more vulnerable without support. All my family members are at home and there is no attention and support paid to me as the lockdown has been extended. I cannot even take fresh air, it is crowded and every time I feel insecure, I have no information on health and safety measures and we have no ways/means to share, whom to ask, where to go, how to say, totally isolated and silenced. I have many things to tell I feel that I am totally locked up.[14]

For example, in Nepal, through the peer and telephone-counselling support services provided by the National Indigenous Disabled Women Association-Nepal (NIDWAN) in collaboration with local government, it has become clear that most Indigenous women and girls with severe disabilities are unaware of the extent and impact of the pandemic as they have been forced to remain inside. In addition, access to regular health necessities, including Clean Intermittent Catheterization (CIC), incontinence products, diapers, urinary bags, medical supplies and other safety measures, including PCR and COVID-19 testing and information, have been unavailable or complicated to receive.

The virus has increased stigma, negative perceptions and discriminatory behaviour on the part of society. In addition, the extended lockdown has increased mental health problems and hypertension among these people and their parents due to the loss of their regular jobs and the public restrictions on social distancing, cultural rituals and ceremonies.

Information from the ground has also reported that a house owner abused an Indigenous woman with a disability repeatedly and, while protecting herself, she suffered an accident involving multiple disabilities.[15] Likewise, in another conversation, an Indigenous woman with a disability and mental health problems was put into quarantine without any physical, mental or social support, and left in isolation.[16]A 54-year-old man furthermore raped a ten-year-old girl with a disability from a marginalized group during the lockdown in Rautahat district.[17] The case has been reported but no effective action has been taken. An eight-year-old girl from an Indigenous group was also raped but the incident report states that she fell from a tree. A 31-year-old woman from Lamkichuwa municipality-1was also gang-raped while she was in quarantine.[18]

Discussion and collaboration during COVID-19 globally

At the global level, in collaboration with global, regional, and national organizations, the IPWDGN has engaged in many consultations, participated in several events to highlight the challenges faced by Indigenous people with disabilities and held several workshops, e.g. the COVID-19 Learning and Preparation for the 2nd Global Disability Summit and the Indigenous Women’s Conference-related Workshop in Nepal from 4 to 11 December 2020 highlighting the challenges faced during COVID-19.

At the regional level, the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) has also undertaken consultations in several meetings and provided relief, recovery and documentation support during the COVID-19 crisis in different countries of Asia.[19] The IPWDGN Asia Focal Person, Ms Pratima Gurung, has been serving as a steering committee member for the Asia Pacific Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (APMCDRR) 2020 preparations and, as such, has engaged in research/an online survey to mainstream Indigenous Peoples’ issues into disaster risk reduction in Asia. She will contribute to the next conference.

The Asia Network of IPWDGN has also engaged in the global discussion on the Impacts of COVID on Indigenous Persons with Disabilities, organized by the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) on 26 June 2020; “Indigenous People and COVID: The Disparate Impact” organized by UNFPA on 27 August 2020; and in the Expert Group Meeting “Analyzing the Socio-Economic Impacts and Consequences of Pandemics on Persons/Women with Disabilities” held on 8 December 2020 by UNDESA and UNPFII. Representing IPWDGN members and the CSO Major Group, on 13 July 2020 Ms Gurung presented a statement to the High-Level Political Forum of SDG 2030 after the Nepal government had spoken and also presented the statement on behalf of South Asian CSOs at the 4th South Asia SDGs Forum organized by the Government of the Maldives and the UN-ESCAP SSWA office from 2-3 December 2020, which included issues of disability.

National level efforts on Indigenous persons/women with disabilities

Nationally, during a month-long lockdown in April 2020, NIDWAN submitted a position paper to five UN Special Rapporteurs (SR) on Health, Violence against Women, Rights of Indigenous Peoples, persons with Disabilities and Minority Issues.[20] The objective of the position paper was to draw the national government’s attention to the violations of the human rights of people with disabilities.

Similarly after submitting the report in April 2020, and in collaboration with IPWDGN, including 22 other organizations, the Minority Rights Group International (MRG) issued a statement highlighting the specific impact of the pandemic on people with disabilities from minority, Indigenous and other marginalized communities.[21] In response to the absence of specific, disaggregated data on people with disabilities from Indigenous communities, MRG has begun work on updating the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples with information on disability. In collaboration with NIDWAN and IPWDGN, MRG has contributed to this new initiative in order to address the data gap for persons with disabilities belonging to minorities and Indigenous Peoples and include them in their work.

In June 2020, the IPWDGN Asia Network and NIDWAN submitted a report on Indigenous Persons with Disabilities in Asia and COVID-19 to the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples reflecting the challenges faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Nepal, in collaboration with different organizations, NIDWAN created a basket fund and supported more than 500 people with disabilities with relief, recovery, health, hygiene kits, online COVID-19 information sessions, training and workshops both directly and indirectly. NIDWAN engaged in collecting data, producing Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials on COVID-19, documents, and reports, holding online workshops and training sessions nationally and internationally from April to December 2020. In this way, Indigenous persons with disabilities are gradually being included, from the grassroot up to global level.



Ms Pratima Gurung belongs to the Gurung Indigenous Peoples. She is a faculty member of Padmakanya College, Tribhuvan University, Nepal and general secretary of the Indigenous Persons with Disabilities Global Network. You can reach her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here



Notes and references 

[1] United Nations Economic and Social Council, Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “Study on the situation of indigenous persons with disabilities, with a particular focus on challenges faced with regard to the full enjoyment of human rights and inclusion in development.” E/C.19/2013/6, 6 February 2013.

para. 2.

[2] See UN Women. “Fact Sheet on Indigenous Women with Disabilities.” 2020.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Asia Pacific Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People with Disabilities, First Gathering of Indigenous People with Disabilities from Asia and Pacific Region 2015.

[5] United Nations Economic and Social Council, Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “Study on the situation of indigenous persons with disabilities, with a particular focus on challenges faced with regard to the full enjoyment of human rights and inclusion in development.” E/C.19/2013/6, 6 February 2013. para. 7.

[6] OHCHR. “Expert meeting on Indigenous people with disabilities.”, 7-8 July, Geneva.

[7] OHCHR, COVID-19 Response.“COVID 19 and Indigenous Peoples' Rights.” June 2020.

[8] United Nations. “Policy Brief: A Disability Inclusive Response to COVID-19.” May 2020.

[9] Ibid.

[10] United Nations. “Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women.” 9 April 2020. p.10.

[11] For example, a caucus of Indigenous persons with disabilities was formed at the 12th session of the UNPFII.

[12] For example, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has held just 10 sessions to date, has already, in some of the reports it has examined (including Argentina, Peru, Paraguay) taken the opportunity to comment on the situation of Indigenous persons with disabilities. The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues included a number of recommendations specifically focused on disability in the reports of its 11th and 12th sessions. Permanent Forum members also prepared a “Study on the situation of indigenous persons with disabilities, with a particular focus on challenges faced with regard to the full enjoyment of human rights and inclusion in development”, which was presented at its 12th session. The Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples addressed the situation of Indigenous persons with disabilities in its recent study on “Access to justice in the promotion and protection of the rights of Indigenous Peoples,” as well as relevant recommendations in its Advice No. 5(2013) on the same theme. The Global Indigenous Preparatory Conference for the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, held in Alta Norway in June 2013, included numerous references to Indigenous persons with disabilities in the meeting’s outcome document (available at:

[13] Minority Rights Group International (MRGI). “Statement on the Impact of the Global COVID-19 Pandemic on Persons with Disabilities from Minority, Indigenous and other Marginalised Communities.” April 2020.

[14] Interview and data collection with NIDWAN focal persons at province level collecting information from May 2020 to Dec 2020.

[15] NIDWAN has been conducting COVID research in 7 provinces of Nepal Interview with Province Focal Person, 13 August 2020.

[16] Kumar Jha, Prabhat. “Man held for raping minor with disability in Rautahat.” The Himalayan Times, 17 April 2020.

[17] Ibid.

[18] NIWF Report et al. “A Report on Indigenous Women of Nepal COVID 19.” United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, June, 2020.

[19] Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP). “News flash: A special volume on indigenous women and Indigenous persons with disabilities.” November 2020.

[20] Gahatraj, Krishna, and Gurung Pratima. “Position Paper on COVID 19 and Its impact on Persons with Disabilities and Marginalized Groups in Nepal.” National Indigenous Disabled Women Association Nepal (NIDWAN), April 2020.

[21] Minority Rights Group International (MRGI). “Statement on the Impact of the Global COVID-19 Pandemic on Persons with Disabilities from Minority, Indigenous and other Marginalised Communities.” April 2020.

Tags: Global governance



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