It is a sad reality that the poorest and most vulnerable in society bear the brunt of global crises. Persons with disabilities are historically some of the most marginalised, excluded and vulnerable, and often find themselves left furthest behind. Children, women and members of minority groups with disabilities, in particular, are among those most profoundly affected by increasing humanitarian conflicts and climate disasters worldwide. 

As we approach the midpoint of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, alarming trends indicate that the world is falling short of achieving numerous Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets. Also known as the Global Goals, the SDGs were adopted by the UN in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity, whoever they are and wherever they live. 

Countries have committed to prioritise progress for those who are furthest left behind, notably persons with disabilities. Progress has either plateaued or, in some cases, fallen below the starting point in 2015. This poses a serious threat to our shared global objectives for the planet and its people. The situation was exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

To mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2023, we must be united in action to achieve the SDGs for, with, and by persons with disabilities. 

As indicated by the upcoming UN Disability and Development Report 2023, we now know the world is even further off track in meeting several SDGs for persons with disabilities.

Persons with disabilities encounter unique barriers, especially in accessing health, education, information and social services, and discrimination hampers their ability to participate fully in society. These barriers include financial constraints, stigma, isolation, mobility and access, quality of care, and a lack of knowledge about social services and rights.

Poverty exacerbates this situation. The poverty rate for households with members with disabilities was 18 per cent, compared to 13.6 per cent for households without members with disabilities (Cambodia Socio-Economic Survey 2009-2014). This number is pushed even higher to 34 per cent when the cost of disability incurred by households is taken into account. Many low-income families may struggle to meet the cost of disability-related support or services for their members, particularly children and the elderly, leaving them to make the unimaginable choice to abandon them or place them in institutional care. 

Progress has been made. 

The Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) has signalled its commitment to the rights of persons with disabilities, including by ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2012 and through the Law on the Protection and the Promotion of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the National Disability Strategic Plan 2019-2023 (NDSP II), which provides a foundation for action. Despite this commitment, challenges remain to fully implement the policies and plans related to disability, including limited financial resources for executing the legislative and policy framework required to establish an inclusive society. 

The UN is working with the government on a new draft Law on the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, providing advice on its alignment with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). With the support of UNDP, the government has implemented the NDSP II and developed the new NDSP for 2024–2028 to promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in Cambodia. This support has contributed to strengthening the legal framework, raising awareness of the CRPD, and building the capacity of the Organisations of Persons with Disabilities.

UNICEF and UNDP assisted in the development of the Disability Identification Mechanism and Disability Management Information System, which was launched in 2023. These are milestones for creating a national database for persons with disabilities. With 250,000 currently registered, including children, more of the country’s most vulnerable people will now be able to access essential social protection programmes to support their health and livelihoods, giving them the chance to lead full lives. In 2022, 50,000 persons with disabilities (51% women) gained access to public services and social protection. 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Cambodia is assisting the government in developing inclusive strategies that adhere to international human rights standards. It is supporting government institutions and civil society organisations to improve their technical knowledge and expertise in the field of "Access to Justice Rights." In addition, OHCHR is collaborating with the government to increase public awareness of the dignity and rights of persons with disabilities by highlighting compelling and inspiring stories about persons with disabilities from diverse backgrounds.

With the support of UNESCO, Organisations of Persons with Disabilities are being equipped with digital literacy skills to enhance their capacity to access information through new technologies, and technical assistance is being provided to strengthen legislation to ensure access to information for persons with disabilities. This is critical to enable their active participation in public debates and engagement in policy-making processes. 

The UN remains steadfast in championing the rights of every person with a disability, including women and children, through collaboration and cooperation with all stakeholders, including the government, civil society organisations as well as organisations of persons with disabilities, and the communities. 

We need to do more.

Persons with disabilities must have equal opportunities and access to all services, wherever they live.

Families must be supported to take care of and nurture their children with disabilities. 

Every person with a disability must have access to life-long learning opportunities. 

Every child with a disability must be given a chance to access good-quality, inclusive education. 

The voices of all persons with disabilities must be heard and respected.

Their needs must be supported in the face of increasing global conflicts and the climate crisis. 

We call upon the government, civil society, and public and private sector partners to intensify efforts to rescue and achieve the SDGs for, with and by persons with disabilities in Cambodia, especially children. 

We need to prioritise the following actions:

● Eradicate the stigma and discrimination that prevent persons with disabilities from participating fully in society. Amplify and empower their voices and include them in decision-making processes. 

● Ensure life-long, equal access to all levels of education and vocational training through providing accessible learning materials and inclusive curricula, securing assistive technologies, training teachers and administrators, as well as providing accessible infrastructure, recreational spaces, water and sanitation facilities, and transportation.

● Improve access to comprehensive community care and support services, including through the disability-inclusive social protection measures and disability inclusive action in climate risk situations across humanitarian and development spectra.

● Reinforce disability-inclusive infrastructure, data availability and utilisation, services, programmes, and coordination platforms, including for mental health and psychosocial support.

● Ensure inclusion of all persons with disabilities, particularly mental and psychosocial disabilities, in policies, strategies and consultations, and ensure sufficient funds for implementation.

● Ensure full and meaningful participation of children and adolescents with disabilities. Young people with disabilities must be provided a safe space to express their thoughts, challenges, and solutions while also having access to the educational tools needed to contribute to such discussions.

By uniting in action, working directly with communities with persons and children with disabilities, and listening to their voices, needs and priorities in all of their diversity, we can truly embody the spirit of leaving no one behind. And by supporting the needs of the most vulnerable in society, we work towards a better future for all. 

We must leave no one behind.

This article is authored by OHCHR, UNDP, UNESCO, and UNICEF in Cambodia.

The views expressed are their own.